May book reviews: Trans, Contemporary Theory, Mixed Methodology, and Professionalization

At the beginning of the academic year, I asked Larry Liu, a blogger, and a sociology graduate student  about how he chose books to read. From the discussion, I realized that as a social scientist in training, one is often overwhelmed with the amount of books one ought to read. In addition, one ought to walk a fine balance between depth and breadth. Depth means that one ought to read works within one’s sub-field to make sure that he/she is indeed becoming an expert in certain topics. Breadth refers to the fact that more sub-fields are created, which means that one needs to read some of the most cutting edge research from other sub-disciplines to get a feel of what is going on from other corners of the sociology research world. My friend, Larry Liu, suggested that one also needs to remain as humanistic, and intellectual as possible. That is to say, one should also read writings from literature, and other related disciplines. At the end of the day, a sociologist is an intellectual, not just a researcher of some social inequality phenomenon.

In generally, I read eclectically. My three sub-fields of concentration are immigration, urban sociology, and organizations/work. I often pick up books from those sub-disciplines within sociology. This month, I read books that mostly deal with social categories (theory), a book that provides an overview of contemporary sociological theories, and a book that shows how to do mixed methods for a qualitative research project, and a book that deals with how to get a job in an increasingly difficult academic labor market. In short, the readings focused on theory, method and things grad students need to know other than books. I will go through each one of them in this blog post.

The first book is Rogers Brubaker (2016)’s Trans: Gender and race in an Age of Unsettled Identities, published by Princeton University Press. It is a sociological take of a popular debate of two different “trans” phenomena: transgender and transracial. Brubaker takes the two trans affairs one about Rachel Dolezal, and the other is about Caitlyn Jenner both in the summer of 2015. Whereas the former was criticized because of her inauthentic identity as a white person claiming black identity. Her claims were perceived to be not genuine. The latter, an athlete, and celebrity was approved by the public as a trans-woman. Rogers interrogates these public discussions, and use them as a lens to examine different social categories in American society. The book is about systems of categorization, and how they are being changed, challenged, altered, or reinforced. From the outcomes of the two cases, one could see that the American public is less militant in policing the gender boundaries than it is to racial boundaries. One important take-away from reading this book is the three different ways that one can think about individuals who transgress social categories: the trans migration, the trans of between, and the trans of beyond. These three distinct analytical frameworks help us to understand how each case is being evaluated.  Brubaker is a great writer, and a great theorist. He shows how one could think about social categories in a systematic way. In a lot of ways, the discussions mentioned in the book have underpinned American social life for decades. Increasingly they have become daily discussions at a dinner table. Though full of theoretical arguments, typology, and critiques of social categorization, the book is relatively accessible because of Brubaker’s clear writing. Unlike other heavily theoretical books, this is one of the books from Brubaker that I would recommend to my undergraduate students who want to engage in thinking categorically.

The second book that makes me feel equipped with teaching, and using sociological theory in the classroom is Rojas’s Theory for the Working Sociologist (2017). I officially became a fan of Rojas after having read his guide through graduate school for a sociology student, Grad Skool Rulz. I like how Rojas writes his books: he’s really honest! He doesn’t try to frame everything beautifully. Instead he frames everything logically and pragmatically. Maybe I’m biased in assessing the book Theory for the Working Sociologist because I like the other book. Maybe it’s the halo effect whereby I mistakenly judge Rojas’s academic writing based on some un-academic publication written a long time ago. In terms of the target audience, it is very suitable for early graduate students.  Because of its theoretical pluralism, sociology tends to attract students coming from different academic backgrounds, who might not take any sociology class until graduate school. I myself am an example of this type. I came to sociology from economics. And oh god! I was confused, lost, and couldn’t understand a single word that my Marxist classmates were arguing back and forth in my entire first year.  Classical and contemporary sociological theory texts barely make sense on the first read, and they don’t seem to be in conversation with one another. Rojas point out that the problem of graduate school teaching pertaining to theory is that students often read original texts, apply a theory to maybe their lived experience, or a social phenomenon without learning how the same theory is related the general contemporary research agenda of the entire field. That is to say, there is a disconnect between theory and contemporary research in graduate training. His book does precisely just that: connecting theory with contemporary research. This is the missing link that I had during my first year graduate study. I wished the book was published two years ago before my theory exam. It would help me make sense of jargons, so I could apply them correctly. Furthermore the book provides an nice list of references on contemporary research in education, racial and gender inequalities. My particular take away is that one could group classical and contemporary theories into five main groups: Theories of power and domination (Marxism); Strategic action (Weber); Values and social structures (Durkheim); Social constructionism (Goffman). Rojas shows how contemporary research could elaborate, challenge or expand those theories. At the end of the book, I became more appreciative of my field: an accepting field that has different foundations. In a lot of ways it helps consolidate my professional identity as a working sociologist albeit still in training. I’d highly recommend this book to early graduate students in sociology, who are struggling with making sense of theories that they are reading, and asking how the field has used them. In many ways, becoming a sociologist means one is forming one’s habitus in a professional field.

Unlike the first accessible book from Brubaker, I read a challenging book co-authored by him and his colleagues. It is Nationalist politics and everyday ethnicity in a Transylvanian town (2006). Again I’m such a big fan of Rogers when it comes to discussions on social categories. This book is not about sex and race categories, but about national and ethnic categories. I was motivated to read this book not for the subject matter: nationalism, and ethnicity. I was looking for an answer to the question: how can one combine two different methodologies: ethnography and comparative historical analysis? These two methodologies are very different in terms of how they are being done, and what objects of analysis should be. When one reads comparative historical analysis, one feels like reading documents written by great men to show how great they are. It oftentimes talks about institutions such as the state, religion, or school. Most of the texts don’t show individual agency because individual agency is often lost in historical archival materials. Sometimes I wonder how historians can attribute agency to individuals when they uncover some documents in an obscure archive somewhere. They must use their “historical imagination” to fill in the juicy details of social life based on some dispassionate administrative documents. Historians are known for their story-telling; sociologists are not. I bet we’re not trained in the tradition of making people believe in our stories. We make people believe in “our concepts.” The other methodology, ethnography, gets at social interactions. Among five categories that Rojas in Theory for the Working Sociologist (2017) came up with to group sociological theoretical traditions, ethnography is very good at conducting project that uses theories coming from the “social constructionism” tradition.  This method captures agency real well because the researcher meticulously documents what is being done in the field by the subjects. They could therefore show how the subjects defy or conform with the police enforcement officers or not. In other words, this book shows how one can combine the two very different methodologies together: ethnography, and comparative historical sociology. However, one word of warning is that it reads like an encyclopedia of Cluj, the Transylvanian town that the book studies. I got lost very often in the discussion of Hungarian/Romanian history, and various techniques whereby a Hungarian could recognize who’s Hungarian or not. It takes a lot of effort to get through.

Last and not least, I read the book The Professor is in: The Essential Guide to Turning your Ph. D. into a Job (2015) by Karen Kelsky. It’s a must-have book for all graduate students from day one because it outlines what one has to do in order to get a job in a job-scarce society for professors. The book is full of actionable items that every graduate student like myself can start working on such as applying for fellowships, grants, have a professionally looking CV, and start thinking about having a website, attending conferences, etc. It makes me hyper aware of the fact that in the prestige economy of academia, “branding” oneself has become increasingly important. Her advice has become so popular now, Kelsky now has her own advice column on The Chronicle of Higher Ed:

Those are the books that I have finished this month. From now one, I’ll try to summarize the books that I’ll read each month.


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