Coming around again

Matt Yglesias asks “What are Today’s Protests Missing?” Turns out he asked much the same question a few years ago, and I had some thoughts at the time about what seems to be a common feature of both the left and right: When compared to the protest of ye old days, contemporary mass mobilization is greeted by public intellectuals with a sigh and either one of a) regret that it isn’t ye old days anymore when protests were coherent and organized, or b) dismissive sneering about how the hippies have never been good for anything and still aren’t good for anything.

This time around, Matt makes a really important point, that coherence of movements often is really only sensible in hindsight:

Both Gandhi and King led movements that were committed to vaguely defined and quite sweeping visions of social change that, among other things, included opposition to capitalism and all forms of war. Their goals look well-defined in retrospect because they achieved a great deal so, in retrospect, MLK’s leadership resulted in the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act and Gandhi’s leadership led to independence for India. But all mass-movements are prone to ill-defined goals.

That’s a part of one of the key observations I made in response to this same thread a few years ago:

The single largest event of the period was a Washington, D.C., antiwar rally of November 15, 1969, attended by an estimated 250,000 people. A quick read of the coverage of that weekend—like yesterday’s march, it really was a series of events, not a single event—demonstrates that participants were there to take part for many reasons, although they all ended up under the anti-war banner: Students protested the draft; religious activists ranging from Catholic to Quaker participated; radical leftists were there, as were elderly women and parents with their children, as were small groups seeking violent confrontations; also present were African American organizers and advocates for the poor, protesting the war’s diversion of funds from domestic programs. This is still an oversimplified list of participants; it’s clear that while the war was the most tangible target of the protests, many grievances actually brought protesters out. Like this weekend’s march, officially organized by United for Peace and Justice, that series of events had a nominal set of organizers, but plenty of other groups also participated. In a sister protest across the country, where another 100,000 people demonstrated, Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Gay Liberation Front were among notable organizations represented.

This is not to say that the context for contemporary protest hasn’t changed: Political opportunity structure is different, modes and tools of mobilization are transforming, and movement organizations are functioning in some very different ways. But we need to be aware of the reality of the good old days of American protest in order to make sense of what has changed and what hasn’t changed.


Update: Brayden King, one of my old office-mates, has more thoughts on this topic. Typically for him, it’s good, smart, well-researched stuff.

Catching up

In the past 30 days or so, I estimate that I have driven approximately 5,000 miles, between Flagstaff, Tucson, Fort Collins, and Salt Lake City. About 900 of those miles were driven to growing sound of doom from under the hood. Fortunately, while it sounded terrible, the unusual hole in the muffler flange could be welded up at the muffler shop for $90. Alas, not so for the $50 joint at the end of the driveline. That repair involved replacing the entire piece, to the tune of $800. (Sternly-worded letter to Subaru mentally composed; never sent.) Getting hustled to replace my wiper blades at the Quik Loob didn’t bother me so much after that.

The driving season commenced with a trip to Tucson for my dissertation defense. I am happy to say that the defense itself went really well. I have some revisions to make, but am looking forward to carrying them out. Having essentially passed, and with some really constructive feedback shaping what I work on next, is extremely freeing, mentally. It gives me some renewed enthusiasm for a project that was feeling pretty stuck by the time I finished. Also noteworthy is that we dragged the department a little bit further into the Jobs Age, with Kieran sitting in on the defense via iChat. Slick.

I had an interesting conversation, afterwards, (was that with you, Jeff?) about how the department has an odd culture with regard to how these defenses work. It borders on the Fight Club Rule: Don’t Talk About The Dissertation Defense. This may happen everywhere, actually, and it’s likely less a rule than a function of how defenses take place: Students frequently return to town for a day or so (as in my case), do the defense, and then head back to jobs/home/research elsewhere. This doesn’t leave much time afterward for younger students to get a feeling for what the experience is like. It’s a really sharp contrast to the normal workings in a department like mine, where grad students extensively share information and experiences about things like prelims and oral exams. If someone had said to me earlier, “Hey, it will be an interesting and constructive conversation,” I would have been much more pleasant to be around the week before.

The several weeks since have rushed past: Christmas in Fort Collins (where I recommend the Armstrong Hotel, and we ducked in and out between blizzards, but only just and that by cutting a week-long trip to three nights) a few days at home, and a week in Utah. I finished a paper along the way, and have been bunkered back in Flagstaff for the past handful of days, wondering just how cold it can get here. (Several mornings of -12F, so far, suggest the answer is “pretty cold.”)

So what next? Seattle is what’s next. On Friday I trundle a few packages to the post office and then make my way to the airport — which I hope will not be closed in the face of another winter storm headed our way — for a twelve-week excursion to the Pacific Northwest. I’m headed to Redmond, more specifically, where I’ll be an intern at Microsoft’s Community Technologies Group. Doing what? I’m not exactly sure; the research group is involved with all kinds of neat stuff that dovetails nicely with my interests in collective behavior and new forms of organization. But I do know that doing sociology with an assortment of cool tools, data, and diverse colleagues will be great. It will be a very different kind of environment from what I’m used to, and I hope to be both challenged and invigorated by that. And, hey, Seattle is a great place to spend some time, though I hear they’ve had quite a winter, so far. I’m bringing my long underwear.

To the recent ASU political econ/journo grad on the Middle Bowl Gondola who gave me an unasked-for Masculine Fist Bump upon hearing of the completion of my dissertation

(“Fist bump” is what they’re calling it, right?)


Anyway: Thanks, bro.

Montreal calling

This year’s episode of Sociologists in Public takes place in Montreal. First, I want to thank the ASA for planning four of the last six meetings on the other side of the continent. Good stuff. Also, I’m particularly excited by the prospect of paying massive surcharges to use the phone this year. From the latest pre-conference email:

Plan ahead if you expect to be able to use your cell phone, Blackberry, etc., while in Montreal. Your service plan must include international access in order for your calls and communications to be successful, so check with your carrier now to ensure accessibility and get answers about any applicable extra charges.

(Tina has also suggested that there will be wifi at the conference center this year for the bargain price of 17 dollars a day. Good plan; I see no potential for abuse there, whatsoever. There was a time when 17 bucks CDN meant that they paid you to use it, but it’s my understanding that those days are gone. Yay, U.S. Dollar.)

Drek, meanwhile, continues to wonder how to get his advisor’s attention. I think his strategy of setting fires just might backfire. Me, I do have a paper to present this year, in a session on online protest/movements, but it’s not a paper that I’m very happy with. The paper attempts to play with a couple of ideas about how models of engaging online may produce activity that doesn’t look much like protest as we usually understand it but that can nonetheless produce important social change, or, short of that, enable other things that do look like challenges to power. In some ways, I’m not even sure it’s a social movements-y paper; it’s probably more cultural and institutional. Further, it’s so sketchy that I’m not even sure it’s a real paper. I’m hoping for a generous discussant (and the opportunity to present the idea better than I was able to write it up).

Finally, given the tendency of the Flagstaff airport to close unexpectedly and/or just cancel my flights outright (odds lately are running about fifty-fifty of having your flight from Flag to Phoenix get bagged), I’m driving down to Phoenix this year. And I am psyched. Nothing like getting up at 2:30 AM and flying all day.

Process of Protest

My paper with Sarah Soule, “The Process of Protest: Accounting for Individual Protest Participation” has finally hit the Social Forces press, after being “forthcoming” for a good long time. The volume, eleventeen hundred pages of it, hit my mailbox yesterday, and I’m really happy to see the final product.

We draw on literature from both sociology and political science and use the American Citizen Participation Survey to test various models for individual-level participation in protest events. We use what I think is sort of a neat series of logistic regressions first to model overall participation, where being asked to take part is the most significant predictor, and then explore 1) the factors that put people in position to be asked, and 2) the factors that may overcome not being asked to protest. Computing estimated probabilities (much thanks to SPost, Scott Long and Jeremy Freese) allows us to consider the effects of various measures of individual characteristics on protest likelihood—that’s where I think the paper gets especially interesting. We find that civic participation, political interest, and organizational embeddedness are important predecessors of eventual protest participation, and we can estimate the overall magnitude of each of those effects. Respondents with a high degree of political interest and biographical availability, for example, have a very high (.73) probability of being asked to protest; respondents marked by low civic engagement and low organizational embeddedness are extremely unlikely (.02) to even be asked to protest. Among those specifically not asked to protest, the probability of actual protest participation is extraordinarily low: Under 1%. All this, we argue, suggests pretty strongly that protest participation is a strongly social event that is best explained by a model of over-time socially-structured events. Our findings also suggest something that is contrary to the sometimes-common perception that protesters are socially-isolated or politically alienated: Most protesters are highly politically knowledgable, active in “conventional” electoral politcs, and perceive themselves as having a voice in political processes.

Here’s the paper’s full cite: “Process and Protest: Accounting for Individual Protest Participation,” by Alan Schussman and Sarah A. Soule. Social Forces 84 (2):1082-1106.

Edit: There’s a ton of interesting-looking material in this volume of Social Forces, but the article that precedes ours caught my eye: Andrew Perrin writes about “political microcultures,” or the group contexts in which political discourse takes place. It’s a neat piece, and at first glance looks like a nice complement to the elements of our own article that draw on outcomes of particular kinds of civic engagement.

Being normal

One of the most lively conversations during my medical sociology class tends to come when we talk about eating disorders. This comes as part of a series of discussions about the sick role and definitions of health and deviance. My students really get into thinking about social pressures to conform, media influences on body image, and the idea that eating disorders can be much more than expression of a desire to be thin; we talk about eating disorders as a kind of model for deviant behavior that becomes symbolic of will, control, and independence as much as anything.

Today’s Times has an article on race and eating disorders that raises some intersting ideas that intersect with some of that discussion. The general idea of the piece is that African American women in particular 1) have unknown rates of eating disorders, but 2) are believed to be underdiagnosed and 3) are treated at much lower rates than white women. Research discussed in the piece suggests that “young black women were as likely as white women to report binge eating,” and “black women were as likely as white women to report binge eating or vomiting and were more likely to report fasting and the abuse of laxatives or diuretics than their white peers.”

So while there’s some evidence of similar rates of eating disorders, there’s nothing to suggest that treatment is equal: 28% of white women reported receiving treatment or therapy, while only 5% of black women do so. The research discussed has an admittedly small sample size, but it corresponds with plenty of other work, such as Sing Lee’s1 review of cross-national prevalance of eating disorders and cultural barriers to diagnosis and treatment.

The Times article suggests that issues of resources may prevent many black women from seeking treatment, and that culture plays a role in the belief that they may be unaffected by eating disorders: A researcher interviewed in the article comments that, “experts traditionally had thought that “anorexia and bulimia didn’t happen to black, Asian or Hispanic women, that they were somehow immune.” In her own article, Lee demolishes the idea that eating disorders are bound to particular (Western) cultures by re-explaining them as being about much more than simple fear of being overweight (which is usually included as part of the diagnosis).

What the Times article doesn’t quite do is put this situation of underdiagnosis and treatment into context: It fits perfectly with what we know about other medical concerns in underserved populations. There’s a gender factor at work here as well as a racial one, such that the most readily-treated subject of medical care—the model for baselines of normal and abnormal—is still largely based on white men. Just as eating disorders are less likely to be diagnosed in black women, heart disease was undiagnosed in women generally for decades. And what might have been diagnosed as anxiety in male patients was frequently determined to be hysteria in female patients. The Times article, then, is a nice and detailed depiction of just one of the ways in which social characteristics affect treatment and diagnosis at multiple points in the process, from definition to clinical findings to patient perceptions of their own dis-ease.

1 Sing Lee, “Reconsidering the Status of Anorexia Nervosa as a Western Culture-Bound Syndrome.” Pp 21-34 in Social Science & Medicine vol 42, no 1 (1996).

Teaching Katrina

Rose Weitz, who works in the sociology of gender and sociology of medicine at Arizona State University, has compiled a set of discussions and data about the sociological aspects of Hurricane Katrina. The site is still in development, and she welcome additions.

Update: Via Mathieu Deflem come a couple more links on sociological elements of disasters, from the American Sociological Association and the Social Science Research Council.

Run down

It was a good trip to Philadelphia. For once, the conference hotel was located just blocks from my more affordable lodging (the Hampton, which itself was a really nice place to stay: Free cookies at the registration desk, wifi, breakfast, really nice staff, high ceilings in our room on the 11th floor), and in easy walking distance to a plethora of bars and restaurants. The first two days I was there were pretty miserable due to the weather—Hot and humid, really nasty—but after a great storm on Sunday night, the temp cooled off nicely.

The Tina-organzed pub get-together was a good time, a nice chance to catch up with a few friends and put faces to names. I went along to the baseball game, which only got exciting for about thirty seconds with two outs in the ninth, but which was still pretty enjoyable.

The meetings themselves were also mostly good (notwithstanding book-mad students). My days were pretty packed with meetings and chance get-togethers, and my roundtable session, in which I discussed an early dissertation chapter, went well—Lots of good questions and feedback made me excited to return to work.

So much for an invigorated return, however: I staved it off through my whole day of travel yesterday, but by evening a nasty cold had caught up with me. It turns out to be rather tough to think hard about my work while running a fever.


One doesn’t normally think of sociology graduate students as a particularly physical bunch, but the student book giveaway at the tail end of the ASA meetings this week would put the lie to that notion. The graduate school process having stripped us of our shame, we lined up for an hour with our ticket to the giveaway, hoping to make a good find. Although it didn’t rise to the level of violence as last week’s $50 iBook sale, when they opened the doors to that ballroom all hell broke loose.

There was pushing and shoving, flying elbows, people forcing their way into the mob and scooping up armloads of books the titles of which they didn’t even see. If knowledge is fetishised, free knowledge must be even better, no matter what the subject. Someone who called me sir and apologized quite sincerely used my shoulder as leverage to get himself close enough to scoop up a copy of Normal Accidents.

After the chaos, when all that’s left on the long banquet tables are duplicate copies of journals nobody has heard of, the secondary market starts up. Students sit cross-legged on the floor sifting through the piles that they and their friends acculumated. Like vultures, the rest of us hover nearby: Is she going to keep that one? Damn. That one? Score!

I came away with just one title (which is all the better, really; less to lug home), Paul Seabright’s The Company of Strangers: A Natural History of Economic Life. It’s all about how cooperation naturally evolves as a product of market forces. I wonder if the book giveaway melee would give Seabright pause.

Sailing, er, Flying to Philadelphia

The outbound portion of my itinerary not yet scuttled, I leave tomorrow for the ASA annual meeting in Philadelphia. Sociologists as far as the eye can see. A couple of years ago I took some notes on surviving these sorts of things; we’ll see how things go this time around. I do see from the forecast that it’s shaping up to be exactly the kind of weekend that makes me dread being a pedestrian lugging a briefcase from my affordable hotel to the convention palace:


Can’t these things be held somewhere arid once in a while?

update: PS, confidential to the dry cleaners: Really nice job with the crease on those khaki pants. Too bad they’re supposed to be flat. How to find me in Philly? I’ll be the one with the sharply-creased flat-fronted khaki pants.


Selling a house, I have found in the last couple of weeks, is a lot like conducting survey research. You work furiously, vigorously, exhaustively in preparation. You agonize over the minutia and at least twice a day you doubt the entire damned project. Then, after weeks of effort and deliberation, you start distributing the survey and go ahead and list the house.

And then, at full speed, you run into a wall, because at that point the success of all that work depends essentially on either having something that somebody wants, or getting strangers to be nice to you. So you wait, and every time the phone rings (or your inbox chimes) you lunge to see if you have a response. It’s like a homemade ulcer kit.

But the similarities don’t stop there, oh no, they go much deeper. At some point, after investing so much work and time, you really start identifying with your project. Incomplete surveys? Rejection! Inadequate oohing and aaahing at your open beam ceilings, mature native landscaping, and designer light fixtures? Rejection!

And not even spring break can save you.

Starting assumptions

Class is well underway, and again I’m teaching medical sociology. A good portion of the first half of the semester is dedicated to making sense of the relationships between social variables—like socioeconomic status, gender, race—and health outcomes. For example, we know from decades of data that SES affects just about every measurable aspect of health: Lifespan, infant mortality, heart disease, and cancer rates. The benefits of money and status are tangible.

Class and life expectancy

Across twenty years, the semi-skilled workers in class IV eventually become healthier than the professional workers of class I in the 1970s, so it’s clear that overall health has increased. However, the increase is far sharper for those in class I than in class V, indicating that the benefits of better medical treatment and improved technology accrue more quickly to those at the top. Status pays off in substantial and persistent ways.

In the U.S., we have similarly suggestive data that show how much more likely those without private insurance are to fall into the lowest category of a ranking of health.

Health status and insurance type

Plenty of people in the lowest health category do have private insurance, but, conversely, very few people who lack reliable, private coverage find themselves in the highest health category.

This is the sort of material I’ve been presenting to my class the past handful of days, using it to motivate the core puzzle: How do we make sense of relationships like these? The argument made by scholars is that SES is intimately tied to factors that put us at risk of exposure to disease, and because there are so many such proximal factors, treating them individually has little effect on the outcome. That is, the poor tend to stay sick even as we improve sanitation, promote vaccinations, and address the other proximal causes of disease. At the level of health care it’s a similar story, namely that social variables structure our access to care and the quality thereof—in dozens of ways.

It’s common for students to not quite get this; they’re young, usually well-insured, and mostly healthy. Persistent disease just isn’t something they’re familiar with, and their own experience tends to make it a little challenging to get a handle on the bigger, macro picture of social causes of disease. This is understandable, I think, and figuring out how to evaluate personal experience in the context of broader data is part of the sociological project. So the more important starting point is some willingness to work within the parameters of the project; without that willingness, the puzzle motivated by the data is unimportant or even suspect, and that’s before we even reach the question of mechanisms—the place where notions of individual responsibility really collide with constraints on the ability to do healthy things, and it becomes far harder to avoid the on-coming political debate.

This pretty quickly turns into a sort of meta-question about what we want to get out of education and educating. I sincerely have no desire to indoctrinate anybody, nor do I want students to believe that they just need to think like I do long enough to pass my course, but I do think there’s something to the idea of critically thinking about the world, and I’m invested in sociology as a way to do this. On one hand, a sort of first principles examination—“what’s the purpose of this field of study, and what do I want to get out of it?” and “what kind of data does it take to convince me?” for instance—is important, and ought to be a part of one’s education. But on the other hand, the class has plenty of substantive material to cover, and that kind of examination can sometimes be distracting.

Green Warrior is about to Die!

Whine: I had this whole post put together last night, saved a draft, and then my server hiccupped and lost an hour’s worth of mySQL activity. So it’s gone.

The post was about an in-game protest (screenshots! Also, some narration.) by players of World of Warcraft unhappy with the responses of game administrators to some of their grievances. I wrote a bit about the symbolic power of protest and the institutionalization of protest to the extent that it’s a culturally normative activity, putting it at the top of the list of institutionalized but not institutional challenges. There are interesting consequences of this institutionalization for the power to use protest to disrupt (which is, after all, the only power insurgents may have, absent a seat at the table or a voice among powerful elites). Online, that power to disrupt has to do with the development of markets with both online and offline economic consequences for players.

I made a couple of suggestions about what online protest means to online and offline relationships, about the not-always-clear lines between the two contexts, and about the trouble that scholars of activism and collective behavior have had developing theories to explain e-movements.

But it’s gone. Damn. And while whining about something that only ever really existed in my mind seems sort of lame, well, welcome to the Power of the Internet.

American Gladiators

If blogging really is a kind of informal socialization, then just what the blazes are we training for?


I have no concrete memories of the last two pages of text (something about more research needing to be done, I think), but I do have the receipt affirming that I did, in fact, submit my paper to the ASA on time.

About, the short version

I’m a sociologist-errant. This site is powered by Textpattern, Pair Networks and the sociological imagination. For more about me and this site, see the long version.

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