Songs are better than sociology

Jason Isbell’s lyric “Is your brother on a church kick? Seems like just a different kind of dopesick” is everything I’d like my sociology to be.

It’s critical without being uncaring. It points out that religion is mundane – that it’s just like a lot of other human salves.

The next lyric, “Better off to teach a dog a card trick than try to have a point and make it clear” clearly makes a point I’ve never been quite able to communicate. This is that any successful human communication is pretty remarkable given how difficult it often is to get across the most basic things like what ingredients you want on your sandwich.

The whole song, “Relatively Easy” on his album Southeastern is an excellent portrayal of privilege, a concept social scientists know matters a lot but seem never to be able to share without producing mass confusion and angry backlash. Listen to it:

Wrestling with C. Wright Mills

I am by no means an expert on C. Wright Mills. I’ve read a couple of the excellent biographies and treatises on his work. Like many sociologists I do find him inspirational, and I’d love if my writing had the same eloquent urgency as his best does. Still, it’s hard to read his work today and not see holes. There is little to nothing about race or gender in any of his writing. It’s so absent, it’s stunning. How could a self fashioned radical, so concerned with human freedom, have been so silent about people who were so oppressed and who’s movements were beginning to take shape even as he wrote. It’s glaring, and I struggle with it when I take him as a model.

Nonetheless, what I find in his work is a thoroughgoing call to take the perspective of the radical if you are to produce sociological understanding. You must be radical, he seems to say, even as you look at those things that you cherish. Also, his work is humane in a way that so many other sociologists’ work, then and now, simply isn’t. You can read a lot of sociology and reach the end wondering if the author ever wondered at all about the experience of being human. You must be humane, he seems to say, if your work is to be the least bit relevant.

You must be radical. You must be humane. It’s stunning how often those two things are one and the same.

Immigration is the Easiest Problem

I know David Brooks’ job is to reach a word count, but when I read the headline of today’s column about immigration, “The Easy Problem,” I thought maybe he’d really give us the easy answer. The easiest of all answers comes from recognizing that borders are inhumane, and then doing the humanistic thing. I can think of no other threat to human emancipation, and simple well-being, that is so obviously socially constructed as a border. If somebody wants to walk across a border, they should walk across the border. Or better yet, get rid of the borders, and you’ve solved the immigration ‘problem.’ If you have to justify all of your beliefs with ‘free market’ ideals, then go ahead and read Brooks’ column. If you just like being a decent person, well, this is my significantly shorter suggestion.

Working on a Holiday: Honoring Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dream?

Holidays might be used as an indicator of those ideals a country values above all others. For example, in the U.S. we have 10 federal holidays, including Independence Day, Memorial Day, and Veterans Day. Those holidays, as I understand them, are set apart from typical days to honor the foundational American value of freedom, and those who established and defend that freedom. Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a federal holiday, as well as Inauguration Day. Martin Luther King Jr. certainly fought for freedom, and not just for African Americans, but for all Americans whose lives were burdened not only by racism, but also by poverty and voicelessness. MLK’s vision of America requires not only racial equality, but also economic fairness. Inauguration Day is a day we celebrate the functioning of our political system. It’s a day that we observe a peaceful transition of power, the voice of the voters, and perhaps think about unity with those whom we disagree with politically. It makes good sense to me that these should be federal holidays. We should set this day aside and honor these values. It’s not an ordinary day.

Regardless, many people I know are at work. In fact, when I look at that list of federal holidays, I can’t help but notice that a lot of people have to work many or most of those days. But, it’s not all of us who have to work most of those days. In fact, it’s the working poor who have to work most, really all, of those days. The waitresses serving breakfast to the hung-over on New Year’s Day, those working the Memorial Day sales at the mall (all those days have sales by now, right?), or the hotel staff cleaning your sheets and towels when you’re off to visit family on Thanksgiving. As I write this on MLK Day, neighbors on my block are rushing to get their trash to the curb for pick-up I’m sure they expected would be delayed, but isn’t. Some won’t get the trash out because they are at work. In fact, many people who are solidly in the middle class work many of those days, and certainly on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Teachers are teaching, lawyers are lawyering, and the pharmacist was there to fill my prescription this morning. It’s a holiday, we all know it, but almost everybody is working. You can’t help but wonder what values our actions represent.

When MLK Day was proposed as a federal holiday, shortly after his assassination, it was not widely supported. Senator Jesse Helms famously argued that he wasn’t worthy of such an honor, and was in fact a dangerous, communist radical. It took until 1983, 15 years after his death, for the day to become a national holiday. It wasn’t until 1986 that the holiday was first observed, and not until 2000 that it was officially observed in all 50 states. When President Reagan reluctantly signed the bill in 1983, he did so despite his own concerns about what it would cost in economic productivity (I take him at his word). But, like so many of the holidays, almost everybody is working today. So, maybe it’s not costing that much? If one celebrates Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of American society free of racism and poverty, and guided by a sense of economic justice, then one must do so with a keen awareness that there is much work to be done. The poor celebrate the day at their less-than living-wage jobs, and most of the middle class is at work producing for the corporate powers that be. For many, it’s only a day off of work if they spend one of their limited personal or vacation days. Our calandars and speeches give honor to the dreams of MLK, but our actions seem to speak to a different set of economic values.


Yes, I’ve got the day off. Le Moyne’s spring semester starts tomorrow. A few years ago I taught on Veterans Day, November 11th. The class before, a student and veteran of the war in Iraq approached me in shock that classes would be held on Veteran’s Day. I told him he was welcome to honor the day and miss lecture, but that we would be in class according to college policy.

Race and class privilege in daily life: Stones in the wall

We have a fieldstone retaining wall that runs most of the length of our property. It’s great for curb appeal, but it also tends to slowly come apart. Occasionally, sections need to be rebuilt. On the face of it, this involves taking the stones down and then stacking them back up, but there is more to it. You need to have a plan and some knowledge of building a stable wall to do it right. A few years ago a portion of the wall got to the point where it was clearly going to collapse fairly soon, so something had to be done. I don’t have the strength, the knowledge, nor the desire to prove my manliness to do this job. So, I called two landscape companies for estimates.

Just making the call made me aware of my middle class privilege. Not only can I afford to live in a desirable neighborhood with nice landscaping and well cared for houses, I can also afford to pay someone else to do my part to make sure it stays that way. I do this with the vast majority of the maintenance on my house. Walking into a Home Depot or Lowes makes me feel overwhelmed, but buying and using something as simple as a can of WD-40 gives me that “I’m a man!” rush. I’ll usually watch whoever repairs whatever is broken and feel like I’ve accomplished something. But, that’s not what this post is about. This post is about privilege and racism in everyday life. (more…)

Micro Inequalities and Atheism

A few days ago I was having a conversation with an acquaintance who asked the following question: “What’s your view on religion?”  As a sociologist of religion, I was a little bit flummoxed.  I’ve got a lot of views!  But, she meant, ‘what’s your religion.’  I came out as an atheist, something I’ve done before.  Her response, “Oh, I was hoping for at least agnostic.”

Yesterday I was reading Female Science Professor’s essay over at The Chronicle about mico-inequalities.  In this case it was micro-sexism.  In my case, it was micro-faithism?  I’m sure there is a better term that I should know.  Anyway, religion is privileged in daily life too; in my life mostly Christianity.  I, of course, got a little perturbed by ‘at least,’ and in this case I said so because it fit the conversation we were having.  Usually, however, I let the little things pass.   But, as Female Science Professor said so well, they do add up.