Four Questions with Talia Shiff

Manning Zhang (Brandeis University) interviews Talia Shiff (Tel Aviv University) about her research projects, and how legal studies and cultural sociology intersect in her work and life.

Manning Zhang: First I want to congratulate you on receiving the 2022 Culture Section Clifford Geertz Award for your paper “A Sociology of Discordance: Negotiating Schemas of Deservingness and Codified Law in U.S. Asylum Status Determinations”! For today’s interview, could you start with talking a little bit about yourself, your research, and your current project?

Talia Shiff: Sure! I’m currently an assistant professor of Sociology at Tel Aviv University. I graduated from Northwestern University, where I got my JD/ PhD (in sociology). After completing my PhD I was a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University, where I was both in the Sociology Department and the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. My research is at the intersection of culture, law, and morality. I’m interested in understanding how social actors in various organizational contexts negotiate “moments of mismatch” between rules and bureaucratic regulations, on the one hand, and “moral schemas (i.e., shared understandings of deservingness that are learned in specific institutional organizational contexts over time), on the other. In order to understand how organizations work, we must examine how actors negotiate codified procedures, rules and law, with internalized learned categories of worth.

Routine decision making depends on there being a certain degree of accordance between codified law and moral schemas. But what about moments where codified regulations and moral schemas do not align? What can these moments teach us about core sociological processes such as evaluation, decision making, etc… These questions are the focus of my AJS paper “A Sociology of Discordance.” My interviews with asylum officers reveal how these moments of ordinary discordance shaped how officers evaluated applicants and defined their gatekeeping roles.

In my current research, I examine a different type of discordance, what I term “moral dissonance”: situations in which frontline actors’ critique not the application of law (as is the case with ordinary discordance) but rather the moral logic underlying it. My analysis is based on interviews that I conducted with asylum officers who worked under the Trump administration. Over the course of four years, the Trump Administration set an unprecedented pace for executive action on asylum policy, enacting a significant number of policy changes that deterred asylum seekers from applying for and receiving protection, with the goal of substantially redefining the meaning and scope of U.S. asylum policy. Among these policies were the Third Country Transit Bar and the Migration Protection Protocols (MPP, also known as the Remain in Mexico policy), both of which introduced new bars for asylum admission based not on the merits of the case but rather on the applicant’s nationality and country of origin. In addition, the administration, through revised lesson plans and executive orders, significantly restricted, and in practice eliminated, applicants’ ability to receive asylum on the basis of domestic and/or gang violence, overriding past precedent and internationally recognized case law and legal reasoning. Together, these changes constituted what many officers perceived to be a regime overhaul: they not only eliminated asylum eligibility for entire groups of applicants but also redefined the very logic underlying asylum admissions. Asylum officers subjected to these new policy changes were thus required to act in ways they perceived as directly contradictory to their moral service missions. I draw on these interviews with the goal of furthering our understanding of how frontline public service workers, who are required by their institution to act in ways that undermine their internalized beliefs concerning how they should (morally) act, re-narrate the moral identity of their professional group and legitimize their continued membership within it.

Zhang: How do culture and cultural sociology influence your thinking?

Shiff: I am interested in how people interpret their social surroundings and make sense of various problems and situations. I think cultural sociology gives us amazing tools for identifying and analyzing how people interpret their world and how these interpretations are always influenced and constrained by institutions, dispositions and structure. Processes of meaning-making, evaluation, decision-making and institutionalization are, and have always been, central to my work. Cultural sociology has greatly influenced my own thinking about these issues.

Zhang: How do you envision the future of cultural sociology? And what excites you the most?

Shiff: That’s a hard question. I am optimistic about its future. I think more and more people are discovering cultural sociology. More and more sociologists draw on concepts developed within cultural sociology such as schemas, cultural categorizations, boundaries, to name just a few examples, in their analyses of the social world. It is in this respect that cultural sociology has shaped the discipline as a whole. At the same time, as an ardent supporter of interdisciplinary research, I believe that cultural sociologists would gain considerably from engaging empirically and analytically with concepts central to other subfields in sociology, such as law, state power, and governance.

Zhang: The combination of cultural sociology and other disciplines is an interesting point, and I am curious about your experience as a JD/PhD as a graduate student in Northwestern University. Could you talk more about it?

Shiff: For me, the JD/PhD program was an amazing experience. It really informed my thinking and research. The program is structured such that students start in their respective PhD programs but transition to law school after two years. Once done with law school they transition back to sociology to finish writing their thesis. These transitions were hard. Each program – sociology and law – constitutes a different “language,” characterized by distinct methods of analysis and research. But at the same time, these transitions were also extremely fruitful. My training in sociology informs how I read, interpret, and analyze the workings of the law and vice-versa. My legal education shapes my understanding of core sociological concepts and processes.

Zhang: What tips or advice would you give to graduate students and young scholars?Shiff: I would say two things. First, don’t be afraid to cross interdisciplinary boundaries, to be creative, and to pursue questions that are of true interest to you. The pressures of graduate school, of writing in formats and about topics that will be more publishable, and of doing “mainstream” sociology too often inhibit our own voice, our passions—the very things that led us to pursue an academic career in the first place. Publishing, finding a job, meeting the established standards of success are all important and naturally shape how we research and what we research about. But, at the same time, we can’t let them be the only thing that motivates us. Second, pursue interests outside of academia, invest in friends and family, [and] develop hobbies. I believe that in the end, engaging with the world—whether through reading outside our area of expertise, listening to music, doing sports, and/or hanging out with family and friends—makes us not only happier people but also better sociologists and scholars.