Letter from the Chair, Fall 2021

Ann Mische – University of Notre Dame. (Photo by Barbara Johnston/University of Notre Dame)

Greetings to all Culture Section members as we near the end of yet another challenging semester. We may be back in the classrooms (for the most part), but the pandemic is not over yet, and we are far from being “back to normal.” While it feels wonderful to be “in the room” with real human beings after an isolating year, other challenges seem to have multiplied. We are dealing with pent-up institutional and research pressures, as well as continuing emotional distress and uncertainty among students, colleagues, and family members. We are also grappling with deep challenges to exclusionary histories and tendencies in our own discipline, alongside intensifying political polarization reverberating through academic institutions. Solidarity to all – this is real, exhausting, and important work.

I want to begin by expressing my appreciation to Terry McDonnell, our past chair, for his thoughtful and engaged stewardship of the Culture Section during Year Two of the pandemic. Terry built on the important work of former Chair Allison Pugh, who was quick to respond to the crisis in spring 2020 by instituting Covid relief research grants to students, supporting the ASA Minority Fellowship Fund, proposing a Diversity and Inclusion Initiative for the section, and leading us successfully through the first canceled ASA conference in summer 2020. 

During 2020-2021, Terry launched the highly successful “Culture and Contemporary Life” (CCL) series, with five excellent panels showcasing the commentary of cultural sociologists on urgent public issues. This series (chaired by Hannah Wohl) was an important source of intellectual community for the section during our second year of canceled in-person gatherings. Terry oversaw the expansion of the section’s Mentoring program (under the leadership of Blake Silver), with the establishment of “mentoring pods,” with 14 mentors “podded up” with 37 mentees. Terry also launched our Diversity and Inclusion Committee (co-chaired by Nino Bariola and Anya Degenshein), which has produced an important set of proposals for making our section a more inclusive and welcoming space for BIPOC scholars. These initiatives will be framing our work for 2021-2022. 

I encourage you to keep your eyes on this space as we get our work underway this year. This year’s CCL committee (chaired by Yan Long) has a list of exciting topics and is in the process of recruiting speakers. We plan to launch our first session in January 2022. The Diversity and Inclusion Committee (chaired by Jean Beaman) recently met to consider ways to move forward with the proposals of last year’s committee in a focused and impactful way.  All of our committees have been charged with taking racial, ethnic and other forms of diversity into account in all section work (including nominations, awards, and programming). The Membership Committee (chaired by Marshall Taylor) will be initiating a new round of “pod-formation” as part of our mentorship program for younger scholars in early 2022. The programming committee (led by Chair-elect Vanina Leschziner) has put together an exciting program of section panels for ASA 2022. So we have lots going on to continue the good work initiated by Allison and Terry. 

The difficulties of transformation amidst crisis

I would like to use this first Chair’s letter to invite your thoughts on what I call “the obstinacy of a transformative moment.” In other words, why is change so difficult? Perhaps that is not an especially puzzling question for any cultural sociologist worth our stripes. We all know the constraining and inertial power of cultural categories, valuations, practices in contributing to the reproduction of systems of power and inequality (call it Cultural Sociology 101). And yet, one commonplace of popular discourse is that moments of crisis are also moments of possibility and transformation. Can the experience of being smacked in the face with so many intersecting crises at once break us out of cultural and structural inertia and set new possibilities in motion? And if so, would those be good changes, or bad ones?

I’m currently in the midst of a book project that engages with professional futurists of different stripes, that is, those who make a living from their expertise in guiding people through the uncertainties of the emerging and long-term future. As the (first) year of Covid unfolded, many of these futurists seemed downright giddy with excitement, even as the rest of us were engulfed by fear, distress, and uncertainty. As I described in a blog post last year, they saw the pandemic as transforming us all into “futurists.” The deep dive into uncertainty and the disruption of our daily routines made the plasticity, multiplicity, and contingency of the present – and thus the transformative possibilities of the future – seem much more tangible than usual.

This excitement was echoed in public discourse. Our news sources and social media feeds were flooded with assessments of how Covid was transforming our workplaces, family dynamics, gender roles, education and health care systems, electoral dynamics…the list goes on. The summer of protests in response to the killing of George Floyd heightened the possibility that perhaps this time would be different. Perhaps more radical imaginaries would take hold, and we would finally address deeply rooted racialized inequalities and the pervasive structural violence that in “ordinary times” seem naturalized and immovable. 

The pandemic and the uprisings heightened the visibility of long-standing problems and amplified the insistency of public demands for change. Many of us joined protests, and some of our institutions-initiated measures to take a stab at addressing systemic exclusions and inequalities. Meanwhile, we returned to a brutal, exhausting year of teaching and classes amidst isolation, anxiety, and political turmoil. We held our second online ASA conference, which under the leadership of Aldon Morris probed deeply into the epistemological and institutional factors underpinning racialized exclusion within sociology, while foregrounding critical and emancipatory scholarship and a rising cohort of young BIPOC scholars. 

As we work through Year Two of Covid, times have “settled,” perhaps dangerously so. As routines reappear, the sense of open and transformative possibility has started to coagulate and stiffen. It is so easy to let such a moment pass us by. And yet, we have so much work to do. This is clear from continuing, difficult conversations in my own department and university regarding diversity and inclusion. We have tried to make some changes, but these have revealed, even more painfully, how entrenched the problems are and how much further we need to go. The same is true of the Culture Section. We need to keep asking ourselves the hard questions – and I hope you will help to keep those coming. 

In future newsletter posts, I would like to reflect on three components of the “obstinacy” of the present moment. These include: (1) the invisibility of structural violence; (2) the moving line of visibility amidst change; and (3) the fractal nature of divisions, inclusions, and valuations. I would also like to invite your own contributions to this discussion. Why are change processes so difficult and stubborn even amidst what feels like the heightened transformative potential of disrupted and unsettled times?  What does your own work in cultural sociology have to say about this?  We would like to hear about it in this newsletter.