Letter from the Chair, Winter 2022

Wrestling with talk and action in crisis time

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

Hello to all as we round the corner towards spring! In this Chair’s letter, I would like to update you on the work of our section committees, with a focus on how we have been trying to expand our attention to diversity, inclusion and racial justice in all areas of the section’s social and intellectual life. I would also like to continue diving into the sociological and self-reflective work of considering why this change is so difficult. 

In my last letter, I invited your thoughts on a theme I’ve been wrestling with all year – what I

called “the obstinacy of a transformative movement.” The disruption and distress of 2020-21 – due to Covid-19, police and citizen killings of BIPOC people, racial justice uprisings, surging hate crimes and electoral turmoil – also generated a discourse of transformative possibility. Sometimes it takes a crisis to expose how deep systemic problems are and how urgently they need changing. Could crisis produce the disruption necessary to unleash more radical imaginaries?

Yet as we have moved into 2021-22, those imaginaries have seemed stalled. Politically opportunistic attacks on “Critical Race Theory” have sought to discredit and dismantle the wave of anti-racism initiatives percolating in schools, universities and corporations. Pundits and political leaders have denounced these as the manifestations of “cancel culture” or “wokeness” run amok, while voting rights are under attack in many states. Meanwhile, sociologists studying the deep intertwining of racialization, social inequality, political exclusion and global economic injustice are on the defensive in public debate and (sometimes) within their home institutions.

This is somewhat ironic since many of those institutions never took the move towards “anti-racism” very far in the first place. In a brilliant recent talk in my department colloquium, culture section member Corey D. Fields described his work-in-progress on individual and institutional response to the summer of 2020. His preliminary analysis of data from the American Voices Project (a nationwide qualitative interview sample) suggests a racial divide in how people experienced the interconnected crises. White people, in general, took a more distanced response to both the pandemic and the BLM protests, with the latter serving at best as a provocation to “talk” about race, but much less frequently as the basis for action. In contrast, Black and Latinx people talked about both the pandemic and the protests in more immediate and painful terms. They described risks to life and livelihood, lived experiences of inequality and discrimination, and the urgency of action for change.

Fields’s preliminary results suggest a similar pattern in institutional responses. While many corporations issued statements in response to both Covid-19 and the racial justice protests, these were much more detailed and action-focused in response to the pandemic. Corporate statements about the police killing of George Floyd referred to “systemic racism” and “implicit bias,” but rarely accepted institutional responsibility for racial exclusion or suggested concrete measures to address it. They expressed a distanced concern with racism “out there,” without bringing it home to their own institutional practices.

While his analysis is still in the early stages, Fields hinted that university statements were even vaguer and more distanced than those of corporations. This suggests one set of answers to why we feel so stalled. His research highlights the hesitancy of those with the most power and privilege to move from talk to action, resulting in superficial acknowledgments (where the talk is the action, in Fields’s depiction) rather than deeper institutional changes. Keep your eyes posted for more on this important work as he takes it forward!

As cultural sociologists, how can we use our insights to address the forces that block deeper transformations? And how can we self-reflectively challenge our own silences and complicity? We heard important suggestions from four outstanding scholars during this year’s first Culture and Contemporary Life webinar on January 29, on the topic “Revisiting Culture Methods to Address Racism.” This panel (moderated by Yan Long) featured a discussion among Derron Wallace, Mario Small, Marcus Hunter and Ellen Berry on the use of cultural methods to understand systemic racism as well as to contribute to processes of social change. (You can read about this panel in this issue of the newsletter, and listen to the complete recording here.)

I’ll spotlight one insight from each speaker that speaks directly to the question of why we may be stalled. Marcus Hunter reminded us that race is not just something we “bring to the party” (i.e., of cultural sociology); we need to see race as the foundation of culture, rather than a category to be checked or pigeonholed. Derron Wallace argued that we need to unmask culture as not being “race-neutral,” and turn our attention to the deeper challenges of changing institutions, such as schools. Ellen Berry shared her findings that incremental institutional changes in the name of “diversity” often have modest effects, sometimes preventing deeper transformations. And Mario Small challenged us to move beyond Eurocentrism in cultural analysis, as well as to reject the prevailing “deficit model” of African American culture.

Taken together, these interventions provide a probing critique of the limitations of cultural sociology, while also affirming the possibility of using cultural analysis to critique racism, explore institutional change processes, and push back on recent political attacks on anti-racism initiatives.

We see another demonstration of how cultural analysis can address urgent contemporary problems in this newsletter’s symposium on the recent volume Populism in the Civil Sphere (edited by Jeffery Alexander, Peter Kivisto and Giuseppe Sciortino). Discussants Mabel Berezin, Robert Jansen, Paul Lichterman and Ming-Chen Lo assess the book’s analysis of how the internal contradictions of civil discourse have contributed both to the rise of right-wing populist movements and to social movements and institutional practices that push back on these anti-democratic and exclusionary forces.

Jeffrey Alexander gives a spirited response, arguing that the “strong program” in cultural sociology allows us to conceptualize extremist populism not as an “anomalous anti-democratic deviation,” but rather as “generated from the strains and contradictions at the core of every real existing public sphere.” Civil discourse, he argues, can contribute to historical forces that undermine democracy, as well as to citizen actions that defend it. That is, talk as action can have both negative and positive repercussions for democracy, inclusion and social justice.

What the Culture Section is doing:

So what is the Culture Section doing to respond to these important critiques? How are we trying to move beyond “talk as action” in the superficial sense toward deeper actions with regard to racial justice and institutional inclusion? We have begun taking a number of steps – some modest, some more ambitious – to center the work of BIPOC scholars as well as studies of race and ethnicity within the social and intellectual life of the Culture Section.

These efforts have been growing over the past few years and were amplified under the chairships of Allison Pugh and Terry McDonnell. Like many sections, we responded to the crises of 2020 by redirecting funds from canceled in-person section events toward support for the ASA Minority Fellowship program. The Culture Section also made explicit efforts to recruit scholars of color to run for section offices and participate in section committees. 

In 2020-21, Terry launched our first Diversity and Inclusion Committee (chaired by Nino Bariola and Anya Degenshein), charged with proposing ways to make the section more welcoming to scholars from racially minoritized and historically underrepresented groups. The committee came up with an extensive and exciting list of suggestions. Under the leadership of Jean Beaman, this year’s D&I committee has been helping the section move forward with several of these suggestions, while also proposing initiatives of its own. These include the following:

  1. A demographic and climate survey on experiences with diversity and inclusion in Culture Section activities, circulated earlier this month (watch your inboxes for reminders and please respond!) This will be accompanied by a diversity audit of section awards, nominations, and offices.
  • The prioritization of a discussion of racial justice in our first Culture and Contemporary Life webinar on “Revising Cultural Methods to Address Racism” in January (described in this issue).
  • An ASA programming focus that incorporates attention to race and ethnicity as well as to international scholarship on culture. This includes a two-year commitment to joint panels with the section on Race, Gender and Class. We are co-hosting a 2022 panel on “The Racial Politics of Culture? Critical Perspectives from Cultural Sociology” (organized by Derron Wallace). We will also sponsor a panel on “International Perspectives in Cultural Sociology” (organized by Vanina Leschziner).
  • The initiation of a “BIPOC Resource Sharing Network” as part of the Culture Section’s Mentorship Program (more information on that will be coming soon).
  • Preliminary discussion of the formation of a Research Network on Race and Ethnicity. We are looking for more culture section members interested in participating! (Please contact Jean Beaman and me if interested.)

You’ll be hearing more about each of these initiatives (and a few more!) over the course of the coming year. We know that we have a long way to go, and we embrace these steps with humility and a collaborative spirit. Taken together, we hope that they will help us to move from easy talk towards deeper action and institutional change. We welcome the participation of all of you in those efforts!