Social Positions & Reflexivity

I just finished reading the book Thick by Sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom. The book is a collection of essays that McMillan Cottom has written over a long period as a public intellectual in both legacy media and new media. She has become a giant in sociology after having won the MacArthur genius award. Having read the book, I understood why she was named “a genius.”

The book is not a scholarly research. It is a popular book written with sociological sensibilities. It makes me appreciate my profession even more. It uses social theory to explain popular culture. I wish I can think, live, breath, talk and speak like a sociologist like what McMillan Cottom does. I rarely meet a sociologist who actually lives sociologically. But I think McMillan Cottom does.

The part that struck me the most in the book is her reflections on the differences between her social position, and that of her grandmother. This shows her sociological reflexivity in using social theory to explain differences in outcomes of two women in the same households growing up and growing old in different America’s.

I have always tried to distance myself from using social theory in examining my own family. I run away from such endeavor because I was afraid that I would open a can of worms of pain, trauma, shame, guilt, remorse, and also silences in my own household. However, this realization begs me to consider the question: at what point would I gain enough confidence and honesty to critically look at my own personal history, and history of my people, the Vietnamese who came from đồng bằng Bắc Bộ, or the Red River Delta, or people from small towns in Northern Vietnam.

Do these questions constitute a line of brave, original, and worthy inquiry? Or are they simply questions that help me to come to terms with who I am as a person, a scholar, and a sociologist?

What does it mean for me to observe how the women in my household being humiliated by their husbands in public? How have these instances create an understanding of gender relations now and then? What about being told repeatedly in academia that my research questions are too narrowed? How does it affect my self-esteem, and my confidence in writing, doing research?

There are many questions to ponder upon. Maybe I should follow McMillan Cottom’s genre: personal essays to unearth these questions, the questions that I never dare to answer honestly.

Attention Economy 101

I am trying to figure out the concept attention economy, its genealogy, and how I can apply it in the contemporary media landscape. My first step was to check Google n-gram to see when the concept most in vogue. Here is what I found:

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This graph basically suggests that the concept was used a lot in Google books between around 1995 to 2013. It was most used around probably 2004. Then the frequency reduced.

The same diagram is rendered a bit differently when I chose to smooth out over the period of one book.

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This figure shows two peaks: possibly 2003, and 2007, after which point the mentioning of the phrase “attention economy” gradually dies down.

Now let turn to Google Trends to see how and whether this phrase shows up

This Google search term mirrors the Google Book results. I think the only difference is that Google trends are search terms floating on the internet, while Google ngram reviewer reflects the term being mentioned in books.

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This figure shows that the term “attention economy” was used a lot between 2004 (the year Google Trends started documenting terms I guess) and 2008. Then the interest in the term died down. The number seems to pick up a bit since 2018 until now, but it does not look significant.

If you compare the term “attention economy” with “attention” only, the result is pretty revealing:

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The red line represents the search result for “attention,” and the barely recognizable blue line represents result for “attention economy.” The overall trend for “attention” seems to go up a bit, while the trend for “attention economy” is almost zero. This is weird. I wonder why people no longer use the term “attention economy.” Does it mean it is out of vogue? Sometimes a term is defined, and then being criticized for not being able to capture a certain phenomenon, then it completely disappears from our linguistic circulation.

According to Wikipedia:

Attention economics is an approach to the management of information that treats human attention as a scarce commodity, and applies economic theory to solve various information management problems. Put simply by Matthew Crawford, “Attention is a resource—a person has only so much of it.”

This concept should be understood within the context of the digital economy and the information economy because only when there is a flood of information that attention becomes a rare commodity. And since information is so cheap to come by, companies such as Facebook, Twitter, and other platform companies are designing software, and platforms intentionally with the idea that attention is rare, and that they should design interfaces that capture the most attention (measured by how many minutes or seconds a persons spend scrolling on their platforms).

This concept clearly came from economics, and being applied to different economics-related fields such as marketing, management, user research. As a sociologist, I need to ask, so how are social relations formed, sustained, and reproduced in this economy? What are some characteristics or attributes of this economy should I pay attention to? Is an attention economy on Youtube different from an attention economy on Tiktok, on Twitch, and other platforms. How does it work differently on Instagram than on Twitter? What are some advantages and disadvantages of this economy to content creators, and their audience? How does this concept illuminate the podcasting phenomenon that I am examining?

There are lots to be said, and examined here. I am excited about the concept, and I am looking forward to learning more about it, and how to use it in my future work.

Goodbye 2019! Hello 2020

The year 2019 is almost over. As the new year is approaching, I want to reflect about my blog writing goals, and evaluate how this blog has performed in the past 362 days.

First, 62 posts (not including this one) have been published this year. In total, I wrote 52,891 words. Each post averages 853 words, which is similar to the length of an op-ed. Most posts were published in the first six months. March was the most productive month, when I published 13 posts. August and November were the inactive months, when I only wrote one blog post each month.

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Content-wise, most of the posts can be categorized into 5 groups: digital technology, book review, running, general sociology, and a miscellaneous category.

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Interestingly, I wrote a lot of book reviews this year.  This development was partly because I love reading book, and partly because I was preparing for my orals exam. Writing a book review helps me remember the most important points in the book, and also help me to think through how I think about the book.  Additionally, this exercise helps me mature in another arena: writing for scholarly publication. This year, outside of writing blog, I have also published two book reviews in scholarly journals, and submitted four book reviews. The process of publishing a book review on a scholarly publication is very different. It is much more time consuming than publishing a book review on a personal blog. However the starting point is pretty much the same. It goes as follows: reading a book, summarizing its main points, identifying its shortcomings, and placing it in the general developments of scholarship.  The most important difference is the target audience. One has to ask the question: to whom am I writing this piece for. In the end, I enjoy this process very much, and I will for sure write more book reviews for multiple venues this coming year. As a scholar, my goal is to submit more book reviews to scholarly publications. Eventually, I hope to submit my book reviews to general-audience-oriented venues such as The New York Review of Books, or The LA Review of Books. I love reading, and I would not stay away from an opportunity to write about the books that change the way I see, and think about the world. This process is addictive. I am hoping that in the year 2020, I will be able to submit 6 book reviews for publication.

A related category to book reviews is general sociology. Many of the blog posts were dedicated to deep understanding of social theory concepts. For example, in Assimilation vs. Isomorphism , I compare the two concepts: “assimilation” in immigration, and isomorphism in organizations studies. These two concepts at first sight seem to be a world apart because they are used to describe processes that are applied to different things: a group of people, and organizational practices. The first concept, assimilation, is about people, sub-groups becoming more similar to the mainstream, the larger group. In other words, this is a process of becoming more similar. Whereas, isomorphism describes the constraining or homogenization process that forces one unit in a population to resemble others. In my mind, both processes yield similar results: units within a population become resembling reach other. However, one difference is that assimilation does not imply a direction. It is totally possible that the smaller group changes the larger group, and they reach a middle group by becoming something in the middle. On the other hand, isomorphism seems to suggest that in the environment there are strong elements that force a unit to resemble the rest in the population.  By comparing and contrasting two concepts, I was able to clarify for myself what each concept means, and when to apply it. This was tremendously helpful in preparing my exam. I predict that there would be fewer of these posts in this coming year, because I no longer have to take any exam except for defending my dissertation.

The second largest category that I have been writing a lot more about is the development of the digital world, or digitization of everything in our daily life. I think we are observing a new economy, and a new way of life, and I want to use my sociological imagination to think about how this phenomenon affects an individual’s subjectivity. This is much a Foucauldian way of looking at the world, but I do think that as Internet of everything is taking over the world, our subjectivity in this world is changing. One growing sub-theme of this category  is computational social science and machine learning. This is the methodological dimension of studying the digital worlds. This is an exciting area that I am getting into lately. I am acquiring coding skills, and analyzing big data (especially text data). This is my new arena of intellectual development, and I expect that I will dedicate many more future blog posts about methodology in data science, and machine learning, and how new developments could be applied in social sciences.

The running category gains some posts this year. I am very proud of this non-intellectual activity that I do out side of my academic life. I finished two half marathons: one in April, and another in October. I totally enjoyed both races, and also enjoyed the training process. My goal for next year is to do 4 half marathon races (2 in the spring), and 2 in the fall, and one marathon in the fall. I will enter the New York marathon lottery again. Lately I have been training in door, which is not as good as training outside in Central Park, but it is a good substitute. My goal for 2020 is to keep running even more. I am just in love with this solitary activity, and that I see much resemblance between running and being an academic.

My overall goal for the blog this coming year is to increase the number of word count. Every year, I try to raise the word count number for my blog. At the beginning of 2019, I hoped that I would be able to each 100,000 words by the end. The idea is that each year, I would be able to produce the number of words which resemble that in a publishable academic book. The goal for 2019 was not reached. So I will keep the same goal for  this coming year 2020: 100,000 words. Below is the summary of the number of words that I have been able to produce in the past three years.

 

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Since I established the goal of writing 100,000 years in early 2018, I have not been able to reach this mark. The chart actually shows that I wrote less in 2019 than I did in 2018. The difference is about 2,500 words. The question is why I have produced more or less the same as in 2018. I thought that I had become more productive in writing, and it has taken less time to produce each blog post. The first chart in the beginning showed that I was in active in two months: August and November. Maybe, by simply producing a few more blog posts in those two months, I would be able to produce some more words. Actually, it does not really help that much. The above histogram suggested that I only reached 52% of my goal in producing 100,000 words. Assuming that I was to produce the same length blog posts, which is about 850 words long, I should write about 120 blog posts to reach my goals. In other words, I need to double my output in the year of 2020. This would require a substantial rethinking of the content of this blog. How could I meaningfully increase the number of blog posts, and the diverse content that I write about? 

As we are saying goodbye to 2019, I want to say that I have started publishing, and this feels good as a young scholar. I have to thank this blog for my writing habit. I have become much more comfortable with writing short and long pieces by simply producing words. The more I think about it, the more I see that writing blog has helped me to calm my fear of writing.  It should become a required activity  for scholars. I have seen academics use blog as a place to jot down thoughts, reflect on what they learn, and articulate early ideas, and then develop them in to full-flesh papers later. This way of using blog posts as a starting point of an academic article is something is definitely a productive idea, and I think I will incorporate this practice into my scholarly repertoire in the coming years.

Next year, I think my blog posts will be organized into similar categories as above mentioned categories. I predict that I will keep writing book reviews, but I will those that directly contribute to my intellectual development.  That is to say, I will read more specialized books, and write about them. I have already had a few in mind that I would love to share on this blog. I will keep reflecting on books that shape me and my intellectual development. I will keep writing about my running, and different exercises for sure. Possibly, I will also write about dieting because it is something that has been bothering me lately. I recently met with a nutritionist to talk about diet change. I hope to be able to take it more seriously, and see positive changes in my life. On top of running, a proper diet is a must.  I will also keep writing about publications, ideas, how to write papers, and how to write papers for publication. I also will write about computational social science, machine learning, which is an arena that I am venturing into, and I have been very happy that I discovered it. I am looking forward to the Winter Digital Institute at CUNY – the Graduate Center, where I will learn how to use Python to analyze text data. I blog about the institute daily in January.

Finally, I hope that my readers have learned as much from sociology as I did this year.

Happy New Year, and see you all in the new year.

 

 

 

Society of Fear by Heinz Bunde

The phenomenology of fear illustrates the kind of society in which we live.

Heinz Bunde

Sociologists have long been interested in the relationship between the self and society. This topic aims at asking the question of how the self interacts with society, how it is shaped by larger societal forces. I just finished reading the book Society of Fear by Heinz Bunde, a sociologist at  Hamburger Institut für Sozialforschung  that examines the question of the self and society in the current era. This book is a collection of essays that are loosely connected by the theme of fear, and anxiety. At the heart of all the essays are why and how different types of fears affect us individuals and collective well beings in our current era? These questions bring out the fundamental fascination about the self and society that has fascinated sociologists for more than a century. Furthermore, this book also highlights various philosophical questions from existentialism and phenomenology about freedom and constraints. After reading the book, I recognized that there is an underlying connection between the book I read last week: At the Existential Cafe, and this book. The authors in these two books are fascinated with the question: how do societal forces shape individual lives?

Following are a few passages that I really enjoy:

Anxiety in a shrinking world:

When population growth declines, the countryside becomes a suburb, and the conquest of the world reaches its limits, then interpersonal relations becomes tighter and more inescapable, and the self must try to adapt to others and come to terms with them in a “shrunken and agitated” world. Then individuals are no longer rewarded for their obsession with proving themselves, but instead for their ability to adopt the perspectives of others, respond resiliently and flexibly to changing situations, and find compromises through teamwork. The psychological gyroscope that maintains internal equilibrium is replaced by a social radar that registers the signals sent by others. The self becomes a self of others – and then faces the problem of forming an image of itself from the thousands of images reflected back at it.

Bunde argues that the self in our time is not referenced to any higher being. Now we have relational self: that is it is defined in relations to others.

On love, and partnership in modern society, Bunde raises a similar question to those that Sartre asked more than half a century ago:

It seems that the self cannot get by without attachment. But attachment is frightening because the freedom of the self becomes dependent on the freedom of the other. The formula of this paradoxical situation is freedom through entanglement.

Sartre was motivated to interrogate the extent and limits of individual freedom, given certain social constraint. Bunde uses the case of partnership to argue that freedom in love and freedom to choose one’s partner is paradoxical. One is not entirely free if one chooses to have a partner because then one’s freedom is dependent upon the other person’s freedom. One’s freedom to choose another is dependent upon the other person’s freedom to choose. Thus it is an entangled situation.

Bunde spells out his social theory here:

Anxiety [is] perhaps the only a priori principle in modern society about which all members of society are in agreement. It is the principle that applies absolutely when all other principles have been qualified.

We are all united in the sense that we are anxious. Modernity brings with it deep psychological fear that we do not know where it comes from. It is so pervasive, and it defines who we are in relations to others:

Through concepts of fear, the members of a society come to an understanding about the conditions of their co-existence: who moves forward and who is left behind; where things break and where chasms open up; what is inevitably lost and what might yet survive. It is through concepts of fear that society takes its own pulse.

As human beings, we are constantly looking for meanings of our social lives, and it is stressful:

Anxiety springs from the knowledge that everything is open but nothing is meaningless. Our entire lives seem to be on the line at every single moment. We can take detours, take breaks or shift our focus, but these actions must make sense and contribute to the fulfillment of our life’s purpose. The fear of simply drifting through life is hard to bear. The stress of anxiety is the stress of the search for meaning, and this cannot be alleviated by any state or society.

He then goes on examining different social types such as social climber, statesman.

On no account does the social climber want to appear narrow-minded, provincial, or stressed. But cosmopolitanism, ease, and self-confidence are not so easy to learn. This is the source of the deep-seated alarm we feel when we see how casually and tastefully someone can decorate a home, how affectionately and purposefully they can raise their children, and how they can be so mindful and disciplined toward themselves…While the old-style social climber fights against a crowd of others whom he believes want to see him brought low, the new social climber quarrels with himself because, for him, the journey is the destination.

In the age and time when social mobility is such a rare thing to find, social climbers, those who actually move up from his social position, are more anxious than ever because the process of moving up itself has now come to define who he is.

On politics and emotions:

Politics without passion, without emotional energy, without the dynamics of psyches encountering and repelling one another, and without fear and desire is no politics at all.

He reiterates the message: in our modern time, we would expect that our society to behave rationally, yet we see over and over again primordial instincts such as fear, and anger to be the main driver of our collective endeavors.

On women’s empowerment, and men’s masculinity:

The more secure the new woman was within herself… the greater her understanding for men and their fears. And men also had to realize that they would often construct a “false self” as part of their defense against emotions, fears, and desires for dependence.

Women seem to gain more power all over the world, while men are going through various kinds of masculinity crisis. It seems necessary now more than before that we need to learn how to reconcile the new image of men in relations to the new woman. Who could the new man be when we know for sure that the new woman is more empowered, more sure about herself, knows more about the world? This question circles back to Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, in which she argues that a generic woman is defined as the other of the default typical human: a man.  Since Beauvoir’s writing, a generic woman has become more heterogenous. She comes in different size and shape. She is now able to exercise her agency a lot more. Yet the default image of a man has not changed so much. Why is it the case? If the two are relational – one cannot exist without the other – then why don’t an average man change? Isn’t it be natural to ask that the first sex should also evolve accordingly because at the end of the day we are social and relational beings?

This book gives much food for thought. It is typical of German academia when the author presents constructed theory, and exploration. Yet as an empiricist, I cannot help but ask how can one construct a case study of society of fear? How can this book turn into a research agenda? How can we examine the degree of anxiety in our age?

Submitting Another Book Review

Having experienced an acceptance for a publication, I felt so much more motivated to write another book review for publication. That precisely what I did in the past two weeks, and I just submitted a review yesterday. The editor has confirmed that they received the review, and they would let me know about the result soon. After receiving the confirmation, I am now off to write another book review. Hopefully it would be done in the next few days, and I will be able to send it out by the end of next week. In the end, I realize that writing informal book reviews on my blog has really helped me with writing book reviews for academic journals. While writing a book review on my blog is for my own consumption and for the public at large, writing for an academic journal is a lot more formal, and the composition is a lot more structured. In any event, I am happy that I have sent another book review out to an editor. Fingers crossed!

 

First Publication

Yesterday I received an email from the book review editor of Canadian Journal of Sociology. She informed me that my book review of Castaneda’s A Place to Call Home  has been accepted, and will be published in the upcoming issue. This news really made my day because it will be my first publication in a sociology journal. If you want to see what an academic book review looks like, you can access the pre-print version here. Now I feel that my summer can start.

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Morals and Markets by Viviana Zelizer

Since I started my graduate education, I have had fascination with economic sociology. Unfortunately, I have never taken a course in economic sociology. While reading, and reviewing monographs such as Dealing in Desire by Kimberly Hoang, Under the Cover by Clayton Childress, and Pricing Beauty by Ashley Mears, I recognized that many sociologists whose work lies in the intersection of cultural sociology and economic sociology employ Viviana Zelizer’s framework to analyze certain markets. This led me to wonder what is it about Zelizer’s work that has influenced generations of sociologists.  When I had a chance to come up with a reading list for sociology of consumption, I just incorporated Zelizer’s first book, Morals and Markets, into my list.  It has such a treat to read her dissertation-turn-book. After finishing the book, I am left to wonder about Zelizer’s life long research agenda: that is, the intersection between morals and markets. How and why did life insurance become a commodity in the United States?  How can market problems solve moral and ethical problems?  These questions remind me of my own research questions. They beg me to ask myself the question: what is it that motivates my research, my curiosity, and my commitment to a research career.

In a nutshell, Morals and Markets, looks into the puzzle why the life insurance industry in the United States took off in the second half of the nineteenth century, when it could not develop for the preceding decades. Zelizer used a comparative historical sociology approach. She compared the life insurance industry with fire insurance and marine insurance industries, and showed that in comparison to the former, the latter faced little public resistance. Then she also compared the American life insurance market to that of France and of Britain. She found that life insurance industry in the UK had an easy start, while in France it suffered even more public resistance than in the United States. By tracing its historical development, Zelizer is able to show how public opinion about life insurance changed over time in the United States.

Essentially, she showed that at the beginning, Americans were resistant to use economic rationality to think about sacred aspects of life and death. The life insurance industry had to use various marketing strategies to change this public understanding of life and health. Zelizer conceptualizes life insurance as a social innovation, and traces how American public opinion changes over time.

As a major social innovation, life insurance made its own impact on values. We will examine four different ways in which life insurance made its own impact on value. We will examine four different ways in which life insurance penetrated values regarding death: (a) as a secular ritual, (b) as an additional requirement for a “good death,” (c) as a form of immortality, and (d) by redefining the value of life.

In many ways, life insurance as a social innovation changed American understanding of life and death. Through market mechanisms, at the end Americans are now able to commercialize both life and death.

At some point in the second half of the nineteenth century,  American public started to accept that life insurance was a valuable commodity:

After years of requesting public acceptance as beneficent institutions, life insurance companies now demanded to be judged strictly on business terms….. As their self-image changed, the nature of public criticism against life insurance companies also shifted from ideological censure to economic indictment (p.119).

While originally, the public thought about life and death in religious terms, now they were thinking of these companies in purely cost-benefit terms. They wanted to see how these companies could make money.

The industry itself changed its own perception about its goal, and its self image:

After disguising its commercialism for almost three-quarters of a century, the life insurance industry became embarrassed by its former sentimentality and sought identification as a sober economic institution, The protection of widows and orphans however, could not be easily reproduced to pure economic exchange, and those who upheld it as a distinctively moral enterprise criticized the new trends…. All this oscillation can be largely understood as the result of the structurally ambivalent status of life insurance determined by the marketing of products such as death and protection, culturally defined as beyond monetary evaluation. This created an inescapable dilemma: in order to survive as a business life insurance was compelled to maximize profits, but profits alone remained a justification too sordid for an institution of its kind. The contradictory trends in its historical development reflect the industry’s inner tensions caused by the uneven demands of market and morals (p. 135).

As the industry matured, its legitimacy affirmed, it became to recognize that as an economic institution, it had to provide sound economic analysis to the public. Zelizer argues that this inconsistency of how an industry understood itself is logical because it had to juggle “the uneven demands of market and morals.”

Zelizer also paints a portrait of the workers in this industry. As the industry faced difficulties in gaining public acceptance, the life insurance agents suffered occupational stigma. They were “the stigmatized salesman”

An earlier generation of life insurance agents defined themselves as priests and missionaries to legitimate their commercial involvement with death. Life insurance salesmen in the 20th century claimed professional status based on knowledge and service to redeem their role (p. 165).

The image of a life insurance agent changed from stigmatized missionaries to professionals whose knowledge and expertise was sought after. Their occupational reputation fluctuated with the rise and fall of the industry.

In the conclusion of the book, Zelizer offered her own interpretation of American society:

America was, an remains, a land of economic magic. In the case of life insurance the trick was to sell futures – pessimistic futures. The task of selling a commodity to a materialist civilization was relatively simple. The task of converting human life and death into commodities, however, was highly complex. The universe of believers and theologians became involved with another universe of hard-headed businessmen. Out of this interaction emerged a compromise credo which was a far cry from vulgar marketplace linkages and at the same time a giant step beyond simplified heavenly rewards. Theology yielded to the capitalist ethos – but not without compelling the latter to disguise its materialist mission in spiritual garb (p.176)

As “a land of economic magic,” America is able to commercialize anything even life and death. The impression that everything could become a commodity in this country is still relevant. It comes naturally to many people who come from other countries. Every foreigner I know at one point or another would be puzzled by this fact. Someone asked me “how come Americans could commercialize everything?” with amazement. This person was not only impressed by admired American entrepreneurism. Other people would decry the fact that everything in this country is up for sale, including sacred things such as religion, and hospital care. Is it capitalism running wild in this country? Or is capitalism working its wonder?

 

 

 

Notes on Michaela DeSoucey’s Contested Taste

Last week, I made the decision to change one of my orals lists into sociology of consumption. This means that I will need to read a completely new list of literature than the one that I had proposed. The two weeks before finalizing the decision, I suffered headaches and stress about the change. Yet, after making a new list of literature, all my anxiety somehow disappeared, and I started enjoying the venture into the new terrain of scholarly debates.

What is sociology of consumption? I asked myself constantly. Wikipedia outlines the history of the field:

Theories of consumption have been a part of the field of sociology since its earliest days, dating back, at least implicitly, to the work of Karl Marx in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. Sociologists view consumption as central to everyday life, identity and social order. Many sociologists associate it with social class, identity, group membership, age and stratification as it plays a huge part in modernity.

What is apparent is that sociologists have always been studying consumption. And consumption is dependent on an individual’s various identities such as class, gender, ethnicity, and nationality. Disputes over some consumer products are linked to all other social factors that regulate our social lives.

Among the first books that I read for the new list is Contested Tastes Foie Gras and the Politics of Food by Michaela DeSoucey. This book is about Foie Gras, a luxury food product made of the liver of a duck or goose that has been especially fattened. It is a popular and well known delicacy in French cuisine. I heard of the book a couple of years ago, when I took the class sociology of consumption as a graduate student. The term “foie gras” [pronounced /fwah grah/] really triggered my culinary imagination. Then I had the first taste of foie gras a few months later when I visited a friend in Boston, whose friend just smuggled some French foie gras to Boston. My curiosity was satisfied. I had a slice of foie gras pâté. It tasted similar to some pork pâté that I had as a kid in Vietnam, but it was less fatty, and more “refine.” I did not venture into the topic of foie gras any further until when I had to compose the new list of literature to read. Triggered by the experience of tasting this delicacy, and also curious to how foie gras became a contested food, I decided to read about it.

The book is about foie gras, who supports, and who opposes the production, distribution and consumption of it on both sides of the Atlantic. It starts out describing the heated debates between different chefs in Chicago about their use of foie gras in their menus. Then the author talks about the fact that the city of Chicago created a law that bans the distribution (selling) of foie gras. Other states in the United States also banned the production of foie gras based on the idea that the ducks or geese were inhumanely fattened. This luxury product is a highly contested food item in the culinary scene in the United States. Animal rights activists tried various tactics to stop the production and consumption of it. On the other side of the Atlantic, in France, foie gras is a tradition. It is also a contested political topic, but its politics is operating differently because it is such a ubiquitous item.

In order to explain the different politics around foie gras in both the United States, and France, DeSoucey proposed the concept “gastropolitics” to understand this phenomenon. This politics refers to “conflicts over food that are located at the intersections  of social movements, cultural markets, and state regulation.” They are “conflicts over food and culinary practices that are branded as social problems.” Everything around foie gras in both countries is framed as social problem. Many groups are involved in the production, distribution, and consumption of this specialty. There are also anti-foie-gras groups, whose claims over the mal-treatment of the birds are not less convincing than artisanal farmers in Southern France who tried to preserve the traditional ways of producing ducks.

In many ways, all groups are participating in gastropolitics, which “are everyday politics where people and groups actively engage to keep or change what is eaten, and they are also formal politics related to laws and governmental regulations that shape the food system.” Actors try to change the way foods are eaten, prepared, and produced. They also influence formal politics, and change formal laws that dictate what is distributed, and how something should be distributed.

DeSoucey’s writing is superb. Her book  reads like a page turner. I devoured the book in two days. She leads the reader on an ethnographic tour from urban consumption scene in Chicago to the production sites in southern France. Her comparative project makes clear that

Foie gras has struck a resonant chord for many – it has often (and polemically) been called America’s most controversial food. Its politics reveal how ideas and concerns about morality intersect with markets, social movements, and state systems of law and regulation. The very topic of foie gras’s existence, as well as its presence on the menus, has galvanized some people – animal rights activitists, chefs, industry members, consumers and legislators – to action in ways that other issues have not. These politics involve deep, identity-laden concerns, and they illuminate the various ways in which institutions and organizations, as makers and mediators of morally grounded cultural meanings, are critical to contested tastes.

Theoretically speaking, DeSoucey follows in the footsteps of Viviana Zelizer to investigate markets for “morally questionable goods and services that elicit questions of consumer and business ethics.” Different foie gras markets invoke different moral and ethical questions from animal rights questions to questions about national identity.

In the chapter about the origin myth of foie gras, DeSoucey argues:

The origin myth marries foie gras’s production and consumption to the idea of French nationhood. It meshes selected bits of cultural history and nostalgic reflections on foie gras’s connections to the greatness of past civilizations, the grand narrative of French cuisine, and family belonging. This works to propagate national taste as moral taste, marking who belongs to the nation (and who does not). It gives foie gras and its producers legitimacy. …. I argue that gastronationalism appeals not just to collective identity that is shaped through cultural scripts and is contingent on actual and embodied consumption.

In France, foie gras is associated with  the French nationhood. It is a national product. It sets France apart from other European nations. It is about a collective identity that takes years to form. In the age of Europeanization, and globalization, foie gras is a contested product that shows case French superior culinary traditions.

In the American side, “being a good citizen and being a good consumer became intertwined ideas over the course of the 20th century, in large part via the aegis of government programs and policymakers interested in safeguarding the American economy.” Citizens and government work together to pass certain laws to prohibit certain food items. Banning foie gras is a symbolic act where the government sided with the animal rights groups, while punishing a small group of duck farmers that produce a product that most Americans (including myself) don’t know what it is, and have never tasted it.

This following table summarizes the different gastropolitics in relations to foie gras:

 

Dimensions France US
History Origin myth that is associated with specific regions in France No origin myth
Class Ubiquitous Elite, luxury product
Nationalism France vs. Europe vs globalization imported and having no national impact
Tourism Fostering nationalism and a recognition about traditional way of producing foie gras Touring farms gives a sense of transparency in how animals are being treated
Social movements Not strong anti-foie-gras production, but some animal rights groups do exist Anti-inhumae treatment of ducks

Trying to promote laws that prohibit production, distribution and consumption of foie gras

Production Huge Small farms, and negligible in comparisons to other animal products
State Promoting foie gras as a national symbol, and cultural identity

National level

Banning the production/distribution at the city and state level
Markets Large Small

After finishing the book, I was left wanting. Is there anyway I can get some affordable foie gras in New York? Is the concept gastropolitics applicable to other cases? Is foie gras such as a big deal? Why is it that Americans do not eat more ducks like Europeans do? Even though the book tells such a good tale about foie gras, it is not clear to me how many people DeSoucey interviewed. In general, I love reading the methods section of a sociological monograph. In this book, I could not find it. However, I am very impressed that DeSoucey does not de-identify her interviewees. All of their names are real. This is some new and interesting development for sociological research in terms of methodological transparency.

 

 

Injuries & Stress

Before my first day at graduate school, one alum in my program mentioned in an email to me, saying that graduate school is a long period of time in one’s life. It would take somewhere between four to ten years. A lot of marriages could not even last that long. The average length of a US marriage that ends in divorce is about seven years, while the average length to finish a PhD in sociology is about 6.5 years. Many things can happen during this period. People fall sick many times. It seems that they fall sick more often during stressful periods such as qualifying exams, and job talks.

Yesterday, I woke up early and started preparing for my morning run (I am training for a half marathon). While brushing my teeth, and putting on my running gears, I tried to do some stretching for my neck muscles, and relaxed different joints. Then I shook my head, and strained my neck muscles. Originally I thought it was not serious, so I headed out for a run anyway. After about 15 minutes, the pain migrated to my brain, and my legs felt weak. The pain sensation somehow migrated throughout my body, and made my breath shorten. No longer able to bring myself to jog, I headed straight home, and made myself a tea instead. Throughout the morning, I felt clumsy. The pain did not disappear. It seemed to intensify after a while.  It affected my ability to take in information, and process it. I could not think straight, or remember what I read.

This incidence reminded me of how I sprained my ankle in the fall. One day I was going down the stair case (I live in a walkup), I fell on my right ankle, and sprained it pretty hard. I thought it was not serious, but I went to the doctor’s any way. They gave me a cam walker boot, and made me wear it for a week. That day I also had various meetings, and the boot followed me around. I felt like an incompetent person that day. Whenever I talked about anything, my pain would spread all over my body. Regardless of whatever I feel toward an argument or a fact, pain was the only thing I expressed. As a knowledge worker, I highly value my ability to think. On that day, I just could not even think. I could only feel, and pain was the primary emotion I had.

The two incidences shared something in common, which needs to be further interrogated. One morning I woke up, and shook my head. My neck got hurt. I stopped thinking properly. One thing I walked down the staircase, fell on my foot. My ankled sprained, and my brain hurt when I tried to think too hard. What is it this common cause?

My suspicion is that it is stress. I have been under a lot of stress since I started preparing for the qualifying exam. So I came up with the following hypothesis:

 Under chronic stress, people are more prone to injuries

Scientists have conducted research to look into the relationship between stress and injuries. Many have shown that the they have complicated relationship. It depends on a person’s genetic makeup, the level of stress, and the type of injuries. In my case, probably stress made my muscles tense up. So when I moved any part too hard, they are more prone to be displaced. Chronic stress can cause harms to various muscles:

Both tension-type headache and migraine headache are associated with chronic muscle tension in the area of the shoulders, neck and head. Musculoskeletal pain in the low back and upper extremities has also been linked to stress, especially job stress (American Psychological Association).

Being in front of a computer to read, write and do literature review, I do put a lot of burden on to my shoulders, neck and head. It seems that if I do not correct my sitting position, in a long run, I will suffer from various back and neck problems.

While permanent pain and neck injuries seem to pretty far-fetched to my situation,  the minor injuries I have gotten actually affected my ability to do my job well. As a knowledge worker, I place significant importance on my ability to think, read and write. These minor injuries do not affect my non-productive activities such as cooking, doing laundry or even joking. They really reduced my ability to concentrate, and focus on engaging in a sustained argument. In other words, they directly affect my productivity. In order to be prolific, and stay productive as a scholar, I ought to avoid both severe and minor injuries. While severe injuries are rare events, minor injuries could be avoided by lowering stress level.

One important issue that these minor injuries bring to the fore is the fragility of human body. I suddenly recognized how fragile I am, and that my body has limits. Sometimes I could not push it too far. Doing exercise, and taking care of it well through having proper nutrition are all what I am doing now. Yet, I also need to pay attention to my psychological health. The body and the mind are intimately connected. At times, when I could not pinpoint any cause of my injuries, I explained away by the aging factor. The common expression would be: “Well, my body can no longer do the things that I used to be able to do.” Now I don’t really think it is the right answer to my problem. Aging is just a way I normalize my injuries. There is actually a concrete cause that gave rise to these health-related issues that I could potentially solve with help from friends, family, and doctors if I pay enough attention to the underlying causes.

In a nutshell, stress seems to be a big elephant in the room for any Ph.D. student. If one wants to maintain a sane life during this long period of time, one ought to take care of one’s physical, mental, and also emotional health. Regardless of how one wants to accelerate the PhD process, it is more sustainable in a long run to take care of one’s own body.

 

Authenticity as a Way to Think about Scholarly Creativity

I don’t often think about the word “authenticity” when it comes to scholarly writing. My understanding is that scholarly work has to be original. Thus scholarly writing has to be also original. However, most of the times, when I talk about an idea, someone has done some “proprietary phrase coining” already: that is, they have already claimed certain idea, certain concept, and christened it with the most esoteric phrase ever. I often feel like I have no original thought, or have no potential to contribute to scholarly literature that I am consuming ever. I feel trapped.

Last week, when I wrote a review for the book Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert, something changed. Gilbert suggested that one should keep creating because it doesn’t matter whether somebody has created it before. What matters is that it feels genuine because it is created by you and not somebody else. The concept that she evokes is authenticity.

This got me thinking about the dull activity of writing literature review. By definition literature review is not original. It is a summary of prior research. I never got myself to do it right. I never get excited when I have to repeat what I know. I detest it to be honest. I cry my heart out every single time. I wonder whether somebody can teach me a hack so I can crack the code of literature review in sociology. It is a pain in the neck. It is the necessary chore like doing laundry but no body wants to do it. How can a scholar do it beautifully, and gracefully? Every time when I engage in a new project, I think that literature review is that which really holds me back. I ask myself: how can I read all the work, understand the fundamental ideas, yet I utterly fail to produce a summary of prior research and their findings? I feel ashamed of myself every time this happens.

Gilbert provides a different understanding of what it means to create and what it means to write. To Gilbert, a creative person has a burning desire to create something. It doesn’t have to be original, novel, or ground-breaking. As long as this person produces something that she desires to make, she is a creative person. This definition really gave me some relief. Being a scholar is to be original. This tremendous pressure has made me feel like a loser every time because I don’t feel like I am such an original thinker. Every single time when I thought of doing something new, some other scholar has already done it. Yet having read so much interesting sociology literature, I am burning with the desire to contribute to the field. Honestly I love sociology, and I want to make a dent in this world through this field. Suddenly something clicks. Gilbert’s advice suddenly makes sense.

By Gilbert’s definition, I am a creative person. I want to create something within the field of sociology. I am burning with the desire to write something, to create some research, and test hypotheses. Yet, a couple of things that are holding me back are literature review, and figuring out a good research question. In terms of literature review, I might not be able to write the most comprehensive summary of literature ever, but I can write an authentic one because I am the only one who sees the world that way. It will read like a paragraph written by me. That is more important than having a world-shaking literature review. This idea really gives me some hope.

Then I look more into the history of this idea, “authenticity.” In my field, sociology, I remember reading about”urban authenticity.” The concept was being used and scrutinized by Sharon Zukin in Naked City. Last time when I applied her conception of authenticity to urban consumption, I learned:

If authenticity is a state of mind, it’s historic, local and cool. But if authenticity is a social right, it’s also poor, ethnic and democratic.

The concept has to do with social right, poor-ness, ethnicity, and democracy in the urban context of gentrification. Yet in her book Zukin traces the historical development of the concept. It meant pretty differently at the beginning:

In Western culture the idea of authenticity arose between the ages of Shakespeare and Rousseau, when men and women began to think about an authentic self as an honest or a true character, in contrast to an individual’s dishonesty, on the one han , and to society’s false morality, on the other…. Men and women are authentic if they are closer to nature – or to the way intellectuals imagine a state of nature to be – than to the institutional disciplines of power.

Zukin establishes the intellectual history of the concept “authenticity,”  and shows that it arose somewhere between the ages of Shakespeare and Rousseau. Furthermore, she emphasizes that Rousseau changed our understanding of what an authentic individual is: to be closer to nature and further away from “corrupted or artificially constructed” institutional life of society.

Why should I feel that my piece of writing is authentic? Why should it be more productive and fulfilling than original? How can I make a claim of authenticity? What does it take to produce something that is authentic? How does it make a difference? Is it just another way to say the same thing?

I am not 100% sure how to answer those questions. One thing I know for sure is that the idea that whatever created by me is authentic because I was the one who brought it to life is enough. It does not matter if it is similar to my neighbor’s writing. It’s my own creation. I should be proud that I own it. Then I move on, and create something new. Maybe out of 10 authentic things, I will get one original thing, but the creative momentum is there. I am not bogged down by the tremendous pressure of being original all the time. No one can be original all the time. But everyone can be authentic 100% of the time. This is the beauty of this formula.

Book Review: Big Magic – Elizabeth Gilbert

What do artists do when they are not inspiring, and having no new ideas for the next project? is the question that Elizabeth Gilbert attempts to answer in her self-help guide Big Magic. I read this guide with an eye for tips and stories about how one can lead a creative life on a daily basis especially when one has no big ideas in mind to turn them into successful projects. The author as a novelist, a writer writes from her own creative experience. She advocates for a creative living, within which an artist, an author can keep creating what they love most without being burdened by their art. In other words, in order to create something original, one needs to lead the life of a creative person. That is when “Big Magic” happens.

I have learned quite a few useful advice from this book. One is that I need to hone my skills daily even if I do not have any single idea that could potentially turn into a book project or something significant. The idea is that one needs to spend time with one’s craft as much as one can. Over time, one would accumulate enough knowledge, and skills in order to perform a task with speed, light, and also delight.

Second, one ought to talk to one’s fear. Creative and fear go together. They are strange bed fellows. Yet whenever one starts a new creative project, fear would creep in. Fear comes in different forms and shapes. The fancy version is perfectionism, while the normal version is anxiety. Two models of writers that Gilbert examines are perfectionism model, and prolificity model, and she advocates that one should be prolific rather than perfectionist. This is a common advice that one would receive if one is a working writer in the 21st century, where more is better than less. Her example of a perfectionist writer was Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee never wrote anything after the success of her novel because after the peak, there is only one way to go. Gilbert wish that Lee had written more regardless of the quality of the work that she produced after her novel. The idea was that one should “write and publish ruthlessly, and abandon it. Unapologetic about your creativity, and where it would lead you.” There is so much confidence, so much force in Gilbert’s advice. Everyone should roll out like a ball, and once your creativity is unleashed, never try to contain it ever again.

Another idea that I think is very important for burgeoning artist, writer is to define oneself, and claim one’s identity. As a teenage sociologist, I am still not comfortable with my professional identity. Therefore, I have trouble creating something, and put a label sociological on it. From now on, I will say

I’m a sociologist

And

whatever I create is sociological.

Gilbert states:

Speak it. This proclamation of intent and entitlement is not something you can do just once and then expect miracles; it’s something you must do daily, forever…. I’ve had to keep defining and defending myself as a writer every single day of my adult life – constantly reminding and re-rending my soul and the cosmos that I’m very serious about the business of creative living, and that I will never stop creating, no matter what the outcome, and no matter how deep my anxieties and insecurities may be.

I will claim my identity, and identity of my work on a daily basis. I will assert my ownership on it. This is the only practice that could help me assure that I am doing what is right for me, my career, and also my creative force in me.

One of the most strange advice that I think Gilbert gives is to be in a love affair with your creativity. “Stop treating your creativity like it’s a tired, old, unhappy marriage and start regarding it with the fresh eyes of a passionate lover.” Having a love affair means that one can squeeze every single moment out of a day to have time with this affair. Do I love sociology and writing that much in order to squeeze every single moment out of my day to spend time with them? I think my love for them is growing, but it is the kind of arranged marriage love, where love, compassion, respect are growing with time when two people have spent sufficient time to know about each other. Gilbert said no, you should not have that kind of slow-brewing emotion toward each other. You need to embrace your creativity with passion, with energy, with intensity like having an affair. This sounds scary to me because in my mind I know that an affair is something that is fleeting, something that is not sustainable. Maybe fleeting is the right feeling because every creative project is a fleeting affair. After one project goes, another one should comes right in. Anyhow, I think I get this. I will put force into each project, and embrace them with all time, emotion, and energy that I have in order to produce one that I am passionately in love with.

As an academic, I work from home more often that I’d like to. Lately I have moved my work station to school library where I feel as if everyone is watching me. I should stop goofing, and start focusing on my writing, or my reading. The presence of other student fellows makes me feel conscious about my work ethic. Gilbert suggests that one needs to dress up to charm one’s creativity. Do not wear pajama. Do not look sloppy. Put on a nice dress, put on some make up, put on some perfume. Everything nice is good. Let’s go on a date with creativity.  I swear to God, if this trick works, I will dress the best in my home office to create some sociological imagination from now on. No more pajama at the writing desk, no more peanut butter and pickle when I cant find inspiration. I will go out on a date with my creativity every time when I get to the work table. It sounds like fun, and it sounds like I’m embracing my collaboration with my creativity.

Being able to create something meaningful and beautiful is a choice and a privilege. Gilbert helps me to think about my relationship with my creative feeling and thinking. She suggests that one should treat creativity like how one treats a dearest friend because the relationship is the most stable one especially for a creative person. Without love and care, this relationship would not last. Therefore, one needs to embrace it, care for it, and grow it.

 

Public Sociology: Podcast as an Effective Medium

In the previous blog post with the title We are All Public Scholars Now,  I argued that most sociologists have agreed that doing public sociology is desirable, and that the Internet has significantly lowered barriers to entry to disseminate scholar work, and to voice their expert opinion. Furthermore, I raised various issues that are associated with Twitter as a platform to engage with the publics. Twitter offers instantaneous access to public debates, but scholars can also get into polarized debates because of social network effect. In this blog post, I would like to focus on another platform where sociologists can also engage in public sociology: Podcast.

The five main ways that I have seen scholars engage with the public, and disseminate their work are as follows:

1. Public lectures

2. Traditional media (newspaper, talk shows, popular books)

3. Blog

4. Social Media (Tweet, Facebook, etc.)

5. Podcast.

Among those five categories, the first two are “conventional.”  Scholars have given public lectures, and talked to traditional media since the inception of the university as an institution. Increasingly I have seen that scholars write more popular books than academic books to engage with well-read audience who are not necessarily academic-oriented. Even when writing scholarly books, they try to eliminate academic language such as “As XYZ writes,” or “XYZ argues.” They try to stay away from those rigid academic language that does not flow in a normal conversation. For example, Richard Ocejo in his latest book Master of Craft, tried to “break the frame of writing academically,” and avoid “the academic shorthand.” These practices challenged him “to explain our concepts in other language and not rely on what we take for granted” (Scholars’ Conversation: Richard Ocejo).  Increasingly it has become blurring between scholar writing and popular/creative non-fiction writing. This shows that scholars have incorporated the idea of public-facing sociology into their knowledge production process.

The next three categories among the five categories only started with the rise of the Internet. Blogging has been a popular form to engage with the blogsphere. Increasingly more scholars start to use Twitter as a place to disseminate their work. Because scholars have used the first two ways to engage with their various publics, there has been an established protocol about how to disseminate their work via these routes. A scholar needs some credentials, which establish that they are an expert in certain field. Besides, there are various gatekeepers such as TV managers, anchors, and other network personnel that could facilitate or prevent a scholar to disseminate their work and engage with the public. With the rise of the Internet, and the decreasing barriers to entry to various platforms such as blog, social media, and podcast, scholars can now disseminate their work quickly, and cost-effectively.  They can avoid the middleman problem, and totally stay away from institutional gatekeepers that sometimes might not want them to voice their opinion.

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Sociologists Arlene Stein and Jessie Daniels in their book Going Public gave a timely advice to social scientists about how to be more of a public scholar, engaging with different publics using digital technologies. In the book, they emphasize that writing concisely, clearly, and not using jargon is the foremost important requirement for a scientist to engage with the public. Then they explore various digital technologies, and how they change the way scholars are doing their work. They give detailed descriptions of how to start and maintain a scholarly blog, or a Twitter account, and whether Facebook is a problematic platform to maintain scholarly presence. However, they do not mention anything about podcast as a communication tool to engage with the wider audience. This book is telling. Social scientists have written blog posts, written for the New York Times, yet few of them maintain a podcast where they could directly communicate with the wider audience. Why don’t we embrace this particular medium?

One reason has to do with the time cost of maintaining a well-run podcast. It takes a lot of time, and work to create and maintain a podcast. Even though social scientists have not come out and talk about their burnout problem as much as physicians do, they are nevertheless burdened with lots of administrative work on top of their heavy teaching load, and doing research. Maintaining a podcast? No thank you very much. Just the idea of starting a podcast, and making sure that people are listening to the podcast, and that it runs well is overwhelming to any busy scholar.

However, there are some good sociology podcasts out there such as the Annex, or Thinking Allowed. Both of these podcasts are exceptionally well-run by veteran sociologists in the English speaking world. I have written a review of the two podcasts on this blog about a year ago, and one can find out more about it here. SozioPod from Germany also does such a great job in bridging the communication gap between social scientists and the publics about social issues in the German speaking world. Those examples show that other than cost/benefit reason, there must be another reason that podcasting is a difficult market to crack for social scientists. It could be inherent to graduate school training that we all receive.

When writing a blog post, for the New York Times, a popular book, or simply tweeting, the main skill that one needs is to be able to communicate effectively in the written forms. In contrast, podcasts require a completely different skills set: story telling, conversational reaction with the host, some humor. In other words, the podcasting repertoire is completely different from the scholarly repertoire. In order to become a good scholar, one needs to think and write mostly. Even though teaching is a part of a professor’s work, it is not the main criterion where one’s evaluated as a scholar. The image of a socially awkward professor still comes to mind when one thinks about a serious scholar. Most of us are introverts who read more than playing with our peers outside during our childhood. During our grad school training, we become even more introverted because of the solitary nature of our work. Podcasting requires more than just knowledge. One needs to step outside of one’s comfortable introvert zone to talk to the audience, and to maintain that long-term connection.

In a nutshell, one does not get trained to become a good podcaster in grad school. This explains why most scientists have chosen to become public scholars on platforms such as blogs, and social media. There is “a skill consonance” between being a scholar and being able to maneuver those platforms. While there is “a skill dissonance” between being a scholar and being a good podcaster.  Therefore, even though the cost to enter the podcasting world has significantly reduced, scholars still have not moved into this space with a rapid number to engage with the wider audience.

 

 

 

We are All Public Scholars Now

Sociologists have been talking about doing public sociology for almost two decades. Since Michael Burawoy’s 2004 ASA Presidential Address, these scientists have been trying various ways to engage the public (broadly defined). Burawoy states that “the challenge of public sociology is to engage multiple publics in multiple ways.” In other words, we have different publics to engage. One target audience is the scientific community at large. That is to say, we have to do scientific work, which is theoretically rigorous and empirically rich, and that our findings could stand the falsification test. Another target audience could be the community in which we do research. More often than not sociologists give voice to an underprivileged, disadvantaged group that is difficult to reach. Our research thus must first and foremost benefit them. The third group could be policy makers who might listen to what we have to say about their work, and how to make their work stronger with our tools. And lastly it is the general public.

Most sociologists are convinced that we should communicate with people outside of academia. The rise of fake news, increasing attacks against public intellectuals from far-right activists, and America’s general anti-intellectual culture urgently plead for sociologists’ involvement in public debates. In the past decade and a half since Burawoy’s public address, sociologists have been taking up on the call. Some use blogs as a platform to engage with the wider audience. Some tweet. Some talk to the mainstream media. Some start writing popular books instead of academic books. The goal is to reach as wide and as far as technology allows. In this particular blog, I would like to address a few issues when professional sociologists attempt to engage with the wider public via digital tools such as social media, and blogging. In other words, I am taking up the issue whether digital technology has enabled sociologists to become better public intellectuals. What are the advantages and disadvantages? What should one be aware of when using various digital tools to popularize one’s own opinion, and scholarly work.

Before going into the topic of social media and scholarly work, I would like to address different approaches toward social media within the academe. Academia is an  established institution where different generations of scholars do research, teach generations of students, and train new scholars. Because of its heterogeneity, the reception of digital media has been varied, especially when it comes to using digital media to disseminate one’s own work. In general, there are four different groups:  (1) digital natives, (2) digital embracers (or early adopters), (3) digital opportunists, and (4) digital rejecters. These four categories constitute a spectrum. Everyone can be placed somewhere between a digital native, and a digital rejecter.

Digital natives are those who came of age during the digital revolution. Most people who were born around the birth of World Wide Web   in 1991  are considered digital natives. They often take for granted that they could find the answer to almost everything on the Internet, and that they spend much of their childhood and adulthood learning how to take advantage of the Internet, and contribute to its hegemony. This generation also came of age not questioning much about their privacy online while sharing their personal data via Snapchat, Facebook, etc. Almost everyone has a Facebook, or Instagram, or Snapchat account. They freely share their personal experience on the Internet.

Digital embracers or early adopters are those who came of age before the World Wide Web revolution. Yet since they are early adopters of technology, they understand the advantage of the Internet, and seamlessly incorporate digital media, and technology into their work, and daily life. However, since they came of age before the revolution of the Internet, they experienced what it meant to have privacy, and to separate between Internet life from their personal life. In other words, they might not necessarily share everything on their Internet from the pictures of their debutante to their baby shower. The Internet might be a place to share work, but not life. There is a separation between work and life, and between real life and the Internet.

Digital opportunists are those who are not frequent Internet users, who go in and out of the Internet as they see fit. In other words their relationship with the Internet is rather instrumental. They only use it when they need it. They don’t really contribute to the digital culture, or help it to spread.

Digital rejecters are those who reject the Internet. In other words, individuals in this category refuse to acknowledge the advantages provided by the Internet, or they insist that without the Internet they could do their work and run their lives as usual.

Sociologists who fall under the first three categories might use the Internet to engage with the public.  Many have written blog to bring sociological reasoning, and methods to the blogsphere. One of the most successful sociologists who uses such method is Philip Cohen of University of Maryland. His blog Family Inequality is widely circulated and respected. There are other blogs run and maintained by sociologists that also get a wide readership. I myself use blog as a template to jot down my thoughts, think about social problems that I experience, and brainstorm my research ideas. In other words, I think out loud via blogging. As a young scholar, whose professional identity is not yet formed and shaped, I feel my engagement with the readers on the blogsphere is rather limited because I have not yet claimed my expertise in any particular sub-field.

Recently I have seen that more and more sociologists use Twitter as a platform to disseminate their work, and engage with the public. In one of the professionalization lecture series on writing articles that I went to, the speaker encouraged everyone to use Twitter, and make the world known that their article is published. Her advice stopped at article dissemination. Other senior colleagues who are more adept at tweeting suggest me to engage in public discussions on Twitter, and get connected to other scholars on this platform. Many have embraced its effectiveness in creating a public discourse around a social issue, and how quick one’s tweet might get attention of the entire community and the Internet. However, others also have raised issues about being attacked by the far-right on the Internet when discussing controversial topics around white supremacy.

Being a public sociologist on Twitter is a very different kind than being a public sociologist using the blog medium. The blog format is rather static, and it seems that in blogsphere, writers and readers communicate in a more traditional way. On the contrary, Twitter enables information to be disseminated quickly, and also attacks to come quickly.

Among the four different types about scholars and digital technology, they have different relationship with the Internet particularly when it comes to privacy. I conceptualize that leisure activity and family information are considered as private information, while work is considered as public information for public sociologists. Given these proxies, I came up with this following table that summarizes behaviors of different groups towards their privacy and their work.

Work Leisure (family)
Digital Native Online Online
Digital Embracer Online Partly online
Digital Opportunist Partly online Partly online or nothing online
Digital Rejecter Nothing online Nothing online

Clearly, digital natives, being raised and grew up with the Internet have put so much of their information online before they became a public sociologist. That means they have established some online identity on the Internet before it became a place where they disseminate their work. Therefore, the Internet contains a mixed bag of personal and public information for them. For example, most of people who were born after 1991 have a Facebook page where they put their pictures during college years, going to a frat party with their buddies. Now a decade later, they become a young assistant professor. Students could Google their names, and figure out their partying pictures in college. How would they take their public sociology about sexual assault on campus seriously after having seen that they were also participating in that culture in college? The Internet has potential to undermine one’s credentials.

Digital embracers seem to be able to separate the two spheres a bit more clearly. They experienced a world without the Internet before, and know what it means not putting too much personal information on the Internet. I have met various digital embracers who strictly use the Internet for their professional identity. Nobody knows whether they are married, or having children from using Google alone.

Similarly digital opportunists only put enough information on the Internet so long as it benefits their professional work. In other words, they are selective in choosing the type of information to put out for the public.

Finally digital rejecters do not want to have any of their information being circulated online.

Now Twitter makes dissemination of scholarly works even more complicated when journalists are scouting on Twitter for information. Under the current pressure when most newspaper no longer makes money, fewer journalists actually go to the field, but more of them go to the Internet. Sociologist Angèle Christin in her 2017 article Algorithms in practice shows that journalists are required to use predictive analytics software to see how their articles fare for online readers. This creates a situation where journalists are prone to the whim of social media readership while writing their articles. Now one sees that journalists would go directly to Twitter and look for politicians’, experts’, and celebrities’ opinions on certain matter rather than call them up and ask them critical questions about the issue at hand. Taking someone’s Twitter at face value, and sometimes out of context could be dangerous. For one, a spiral of one’s tweet could amplify a rather trivial point. Second, whether a tweet would become spiral is a function of Twitter’s algorithm and the Twitter’s public. No-one knows what Twitter’s algorithm prefers. But Facebook’s scandal regarding to the 2016 election is telling. It is clear that Facebook algorithm prefers sentimental feeds and downplays feeds that actually deal with important social issues. Social scientists studying social media and society have learned that these platforms could potentially have a polarizing effects on American populace. This face has implication for the scientist who wants to disseminate their work on Twitter. If Twitter prefers to spread sentimental Tweet, and if the scientist wants to reach a wider audience, (s)he might choose to disseminate more sentimental tweet. This creates a vicious circle where the scientist is caught in engaging in contentious debates, which might not be necessarily productive for the scientific community nor the public.

Social scientists disseminate their scholarly work on Twitter should be mindful of two aspects: social network effect, and Twitter’s algorithm. Social network effect as a concept is rather ambiguous. Some define that the effect means that one’s behavior could be predicted if their friends’ behaviors are known (What is the Social Network Effect? – Youtube). Twitter uses this principle in designing their algorithm. This algorithm might want to predict whether you want to read certain kind of Tweet, and/or disseminate certain kind of information based on your prior tweeting behaviors, and your network information.

In conclusion, social media and the Internet have made it easier to engage in public sociology. However, how one should choose to engage with one’s audience is subject to various factors including the type of platforms, and the topics at hand. As a digital native, I am more concerned with how to draw a line between public and private information more than how to disseminate my work. In other words, the challenge is not that one should not take advantage of the Internet to become a public sociologist, but the challenge is how to transition to use the Internet for work instead of for play.

 

Why do Advisors Mentor Graduate Students at All?

One of the perpetuating puzzles of graduate school in social sciences is why it is so unstructured, and that graduate students feel lost all the time? On the one hand, there are lots of brilliant minds, being concentrated in a small institution (the university). On the other hands, we have a phenomenon that these brilliant minds cannot go through a graduate program in a timely manner, despite having a host of other brilliant minds who are supposed to be their supporters, and advocates.

One answer to this puzzle is that advisors do not  do a good job mentoring their students, and showing them how to graduate on time with flying colors.  Students thus are left alone to figure out how to become a member of the academe. In the process, they accumulate stress, debt, and frustration of having their dreams not realized.

Many critics of graduate school training have written about this phenomenon. They both describe it, and prescribe solutions to solve this problem. Karen Kelsky in her book The Professor is In decries that as a community, scholars, advisors, and professors, fail to mentor the next generations. Therefore, she came up with a market-oriented solution: creating her own consulting (for-profit) business to guide novice scholars (graduate students) through the process. Karen Kelsky’s example demonstrates two failures: (1) the academe’s failure to have an accountable system, whereby advisors are supposed to guide their students. As of now the student-advisor relationship is relatively informal, whereby the student can ask for the advisor’s help, and consultation as the advisor sees fit. There is no formal mechanism to stay that the advisor must do such and such, otherwise their salary will be deducted. In a sense, one can blame the tenure system that facilitates this particular phenomenon, whereby students in graduate school have to do most of the work, while advisors can choose do whatever they see fit with their scholarly agenda, administrative ambition, and personal life. Despite the success of Karen Kelsky’s business, I am also not entirely sure if market solutions would help solve this issue.

This mentor-mentee expectation mismatch dilemma is not only the social sciences problem. Other fields experience it as well. For example, Philip Guo, an Assistant Professor in Cognitive Science, after his PhD published an eBook called The Ph.D. Grind that documents his doctoral experience at Stanford in computer science. One would assume that since he was at one of the best computer science departments in the world, and that he came in with funding, and that Stanford is one of the most endowed universities in the world, his experience would be less grueling, and less frustrating than others. However, Guo shows that even though he had a head start in the PhD game, he became frustrated with the isolating experience in grad school. It became even more frustrating when advisor-advisee relationship did not work out.

Most of Guo’s experience was about trial-and-error where his research ideas did not work out, or his chosen advisor would not help him progress in his program. However, as he became more mature as a scholar, he also started to experience the joy of being a researcher who had ownership of his innovative ideas, and conducted ground-breaking research. One of those moments happened at Microsoft Research in Seattle where he worked as a summer intern with other more senior scholars. The difference between Microsoft and Stanford was that at Microsoft he worked with a mentor who would check on his progress on a weekly basis. This experience single-handedly changed his view about research. At the end of the day one needs to put one’s own labor into the research product. There must be some feedback loop to realize one’s progress, and see whether the eventual goal will be researched. At Stanford where one worked in a silo, grad students and professors alike, he did not feel any progress. At Microsoft Research, he felt that there was a formal structure between mentor-mentee, where they had a binding social contract to contribute to a research project. That was the moment he recognized how one could see the end of an open-ended research project, and how to work with a hands-on advisor.

There are two points pertaining to Guo’s advisor-advisee experience at Microsoft Research in comparison  to that at Stanford that one should pay attention too. One is the changing structure of knowledge production in the United States (Kleinman & Vallas, 2001). Guo’s experience shows that industries have adopted the academic model of knowledge production. That is, they give knowledge workers (researchers) more flexibility to work on projects that they are compelled to do, without the tenure, and service requirements that come with tenure. In the meantime, universities have adopted corporate practices in measuring outputs of knowledge workers (professors, and graduate students). This changing structure suggests that researchers in industry increasingly experience more flexibility, while researchers in academia increasingly experience constraints and market pressures. From the standpoints of work/life balance, and  work satisfaction, it seems that researchers in industry have experienced more gain, while researchers in academia have experienced more control, and stress. Thus, the advisor-advisee relationship in industry could potentially work out well because in general people are less stressed, and less concerned with administrative tasks, and more focusing on their research. Thus,  more productive and meaningful relationships could be formed and sustained.

The debate about advisor-advisee relationship often asks why advisors don’t do more for their students. This question presupposes that it is in the interests of the advisor to mentor, and guide their student well. However, what if the incentive structure is working against students’ interests? That is, what if there is no incentive whatsoever for advisors to mentor their students? The question then becomes why should any advisor take time and mentor their student at all? When one thinks about the tenure system, one sees that there is absolutely no incentive to spend time, and mentor graduate students. This is not a part of one’s tenure package. As a scholar, one is only evaluated based on how much one has published. That means knowledge output is more important than who was involved in the process.  Thus, the advisor-advisee relationship is not a part of the equation.

Jeffry Sallaz’s recent article on labor process in a post-Fordist labor regime is very illuminating in explaining why advisors in graduate school do not tend to mentor their students.

Sallaz

Basically, he shows that in the Fordist regime of labor process, workers experience the regime of responsible autonomy where they experience work through the learning game and the reward game. That means workers learn what is expected of them in the job, and if they fulfill the expectation,  they will be rewarded. In the current work regime (Post-Fordist regime), workers only experience the learning game without any reward. That means, workers constantly learn new things, but do not get any reward even if they do the job well, or master the rules of the game. This comparison is very illuminating if one conceptualizes a professor as a worker in a permanent pedagogy regime. Professors now have to constantly work with new students, who have amazing ideas, and some also fail to produce any interesting research. Yet, they are required to sign onto a social contract that says they should advise them without receiving any concrete reward. Logically, they would choose to minimize their mentoring time to move on to either the next student, or to focus on their own research projects. Helping a novice researcher with lots of questions would not give them any reward in a short run. In other words, it is very much the advisor’s good nature to mentor a student because there is no requirement for them to be a good mentor. On the contrary, the system is built in such a way that they should spend as little time mentoring students as possible because they would not reap any tangible rewards.

Now do I have any solution for the issue: advisor-advisee relationship in graduate school? Somewhat. One is restructuring of academia where professors do not have to over-do services, and that they could focus on being a good academic which is to produce good research, and train the next generations. I believe that if professors are not overworked, and stressed out with successive teaching, and service requirements, they would have more time for their graduate students. The other solution is that there should be an incentive system that is built in each program to facilitates student-faculty collaboration. This would help increase the quality of graduate school experience for graduate students, while giving advisors the necessary incentives to spend more time mentoring the next generations of scholars.

Putting Down Roots

The above scene is my favorite from Leon: The Professional. This is the last scene when Mathilda Lando (Natalie Portman) put down roots for the plants that she and the Italian hit man Leon (Jean Reno) carried around before Leon’s death. The plants are symbolic for the kind of life that Leon was living. Regardless of where he lived, what kind of danger he was in, he must water the plants, and must carry them around. There were only a couple of things that were dear to Leon: one was the plants, and the other Mathilda. At one point, Mathilda asked if Leon would put down roots with her somewhere. Being a hit man, who might die any day, Leon was not afraid of anything, but he was obsessed with his plants, and he must save them. Before meeting Mathilda, the plants were his only possession. He took care of them well. After Mathilda entered his life, he found some meaning in life, and started to look forward to creating a life with her. However, in the end, Leon died, but the plants and Mathilda lived. Once Leon was gone, the plants more or less represented him. Mathilda decided to put its roots down on the yard of the boarding school yard where she went to after all the killings, and chasing were gone. The act of putting down its roots marked a clear departure with the past. Instead of trying to become a hit woman, following Leon’s footsteps, she decided to go to school, and live a normal teenage girl life. She put down roots to guide her future.

While watching the scene I asked myself whether I have been brave enough to put down roots somewhere. At that point I was still thinking that the decision could wait. Yet I could foresee how that particular decision would affect my thinking  and feeling about various issues in life.

In my professional development, am I comfortable enough saying that I have put roots down in sociology? I can say that I can now comfortable cal myself a sociologist. I am actively becoming and passively molded into a social scientist. Now the next question is in which sub-field (or sub-fields) have I become rooted in? Somewhere between sociology of work, urban sociology, and international immigration. How about where I would do my field work, and what is the research question? Somehow I have decided that I no longer want to travel for fieldwork. It requires too much. And the return is not really worth it. Despite the fact that cost-benefit analysis is categorized as neoclassical economic thinking, I believe that it is one of the most effective ways to think about how I should make a decision. I have recognized that going overseas for my fieldwork is no longer worth it, and that I should either stay at home to do research, or do research that does not require lots of traveling. Call me lazy, but spending time to get to know a place well is a gamble where I do not know what the reward would be. Given the time frame that I have for the PhD program, it is such a high-risk/uncertain return venture that I would take if I were to conduct an international/comparative research.

At the end of the day, my decision is that I will do research in New York City that requires little or minimal traveling. The more I get to know New York, the more I realize that it is full of wonders, surprises, and paradoxes. It is a place which would take years and years for me to know it well. So I think to myself: well, maybe I can start with my dissertation project. There it is, my decision has been narrowed down to New York.

The beauty of watching a classic movie is that each person gets something out of it. My take away from Leon: The Professional is that it forced me to deliberately think about where I want to settle, and what is the implication of being rooted in a place. This decision has given me a sense of direction and clarity for the next couple of years in my life.

 

 

Assimilation vs. Isomorphism

I am currently reading for my orals exam, which is considered as a qualifying exam in my PhD program. The idea is that after this exam, I am certified by three experts in  different sub-fields of sociology that I’m qualified as a sociologist. In a lot of ways it is a rite of passage in my profession. It is the ritual that hundreds and hundreds of PhD students in sociology have gone through. And I will participate in this particular moment in less than a month. Similar to other rituals, and rites of passage, there is a lengthy preparation period, which has been giving me lots of stress and anxiety. At the end of the day, it’s a test, and having been in school for the past 20 plus years, I should be familiar with these processes. Yet, I am still not. Excitement and anxiety come and go at times.

One thing I know for sure is that I am enjoying reading literature in three different sub-fields of sociology that don’t often communicate with each other. Every once in a while, I would spot an interesting pair of concepts that talk about the exact same idea, but are used differently for different phenomena, entities. The pair of concepts that struck me the most are “isomorphism” and “assimilation.” These two are important concepts in economic sociology and international immigration respectively.

Isomorphism is the concept that best captures the process of homogenization… It is a constraining process that forces one unit in a population to resemble other units that face the same set of environmental conditions. At the population level, such an approach suggests that organizational characteristics are modified in the direction of increasing compatibility with environmental characteristics; the number of organizations in a population is a function of environmental carrying capacity; and the diversity of organization forms is isomorphic to environmental diversity.   (DiMaggio & Powell, 1983).

In a nutshell, isomorphism describes a process of becoming similar to each other among organizations that are operating in the same environment (broadly defined).

While assimilation is the concept that describes the process of becoming similar when an immigrant group moves to a new society. The idea is that over time, over the course of a generation or more, the immigrant group started resembling the host group in various respects. This term has brought forth fierce debates about whether it is still the right term to describe how a diverse group of immigrants coming from Asia, Latin America, Africa adjust their lives in America when the concept the “host society” has become more difficult to define. Many people have proposed to jettison the concept. However, in defending its analytical utility, and its “returning” Rogers Brubaker argues:

In the general the abstract sense of  assimilation is becoming similar – becoming similar in certain respects, that obviously have to be specified. Indeed, the use of some such notion – if only to pose certain questions about patterns of ‘integration’, ‘adaptation’ or ‘incorporation’, terms that have been preferred to ‘assimilation’ in many recent discussions would seem to be analytically indispensable. Here I simply wish to underscore that it is this understanding of ‘assimilation’, this normative and analytical concern with the nature and extent of emerging similarities in particular domains between populations of immigration origin and ‘host’ populations, that I see ‘returning’ in recent years.

Brubaker underscores the process of becoming similar between the two populations: the immigrants, and the host population. He does not specify what aspects of their lives have become more similar. This particular aspect is defined by other researchers. One can compare many dimensions such as spatial distribution, socioeconomic measures, income distribution, intermarriage, etc. In many ways, they will look a lot alike on paper after a few generations.

When juxtaposing the two concepts, I start to recognize that the concept isomorphism makes me understand the fundamental assumptions of assimilation so much better. What assimilationists have been trying to argue all along is that when the host and the immigrant population live in the same socioeconomic and political environment, they will eventually become similar. Which organization becomes similar to which organization is not specified in the concept of isomorphism. The concept only describes a process that occurs among all organizations within an organizational field. It does not specify power-relation among organizations. On the contrary, it is clear that the underlying assumption in assimilation theory is that the immigrants become more like the host. Assimilation doesn’t happen in the opposite direction. The overwhelming consensus when talking about immigrant incorporation is that the immigrants should become more like the host. The power dynamics is clear. Nobody has ever tried to make the host become more like the immigrants.

Then I start to think about different possible scenarios where the host and the immigrants interact differently. What if the uni-directional homogenization process does not happen? What if it is a multi-directional kind of becoming similar process? How about the situation when the environment changes because of immigrants. In other words, there is a balancing act, a salsa-like dynamic between the host and immigrants rather than the kind of uni-directional assimilation force between the two population. Many scenarios can take place.

Host Immigrants
One-way Assimilation Host Immigrants -> host
Dynamic assimilation -> environment change Host changes Immigrants change
Reverse assimilation Host-> immigrants Immigrants

The table above outlines three different scenarios when the host and immigrants interact. The first scenario is the classic uni-directional dynamic where the immigrants start looking like the host after a long time living in the same social environment that the host has created. This is what assimilation scholars have been arguing, and a myriad of scholarship has been produced to prove the point that regardless of one’s belief, evidence shows that clearly immigrants start to look like Americans in terms of housing preferences, socioeconomic achievement, and even cultural preferences after a couple of generations. The second scenario shows a kind of dynamic relationship between the two population where power is not clearly tilted toward one side. I accept that in the United States and other Western European countries, there is a strong pressure to assimilate for immigrants, simply because most immigrants come from countries with less economic and political powers than the countries that they migrate to. However, what if people migrate in mass from a country with more or less similar economic and political power to the host country? And that they migrate in a significant number? Would this scenario then happen after a generation or two? I wonder whether there is a scenario in history when this mutually homogenizing process took place. Finally the last scenario shows a possible outcome when the host society actually changes so much in the direction that benefits the immigrants. This clearly reminds me of colonization. It is no longer assimilation, but coercive changes that are imposed on a population by another foreign power. So clearly we have language for these processes. But other than the first scenario, nothing would be called assimilation.

By comparing two concepts: isomorphism and assimilation, I have come to understand better the underlying assumptions of each theory, and also how to apply them in context. In many ways, the unit of analysis actually matters here. What is the thing that one is looking at matters. What is the given power dynamics of the field that one is looking at?

Anyhow, I am very much enjoying my orals preparation process. It is stressful, but sometimes brilliant insights also come when I make concepts interact.

 

 

Post-Fordist Work Floor

One of the great things about preparing for my orals exam is to read sociological literature that I would have never read if it is left to me to decide what is interesting. Every once in a while, I would stumble upon a research paper whose analysis and conclusions ring true to my ears.“The transformation of work revisited” by Steve Vallas and John Beck is one of those papers.

They study the organization of work in relations to technological changes. The authors challenge flexibility theory when it comes to manual workers. The theory suggests that in the new area of technological development, manual workers are required a higher level of skill; there should be “an expansion of craft discretion, presaging a synthesis of mental and manual functions within the automated plant;” and a shift from bureaucratic control to organizational commitment as the principle that undergirds  the new structure of work.

In order to test whether the above-mentioned claims are true, they conducted a research at four paper mills across the country. What they found is very illuminating. In contrast to what post-Fordist theorists predict about the empowering effects of automation toward manual laborers, Vallas and Ford found that Fordist principles remain stubbornly the organizing principles of work in paper mills. Workers are not really empowered. They experienced higher level of control by managers, and engineers.

The paragraph that rings true the most to me is the following:

Standardization of decisions. A further way in which shoopfloor life has been reconfigured centers on the ways in which analytic functions and decision-making powers have been distributed. Recall that post-Fordist theory expects the process of work restructuring to reallocate a portion of these tasks downward, blurring or even transcending the traditional division between mental and manual labor. We find little evidence of such a trend. Instead, our research indicates that the dominant tendency has involved a pattern of tightened constraints upon manual workers’ judgement rather than the “relaxation of constraints” that flexibility theory foresees. 352

Once a new technology is introduced to the workplace, work relations are reconfigured. In the case study, power falls into the hand of those who know how to operate new machines.   There is no trickle down effect where manual workers start to take charge of the machine. Instead they experience more constraints, and their knowledge becomes less valuable.

This analysis is similar to what we hear nowadays about how computers make doctors feel frustrated, and how their authority is threatened by programmers who know little about how to cure patients, but teach them how to operate information machines. This following excerpt from the New Yorker’s “Why Doctors Hate Their Computers,” shows this sentiment well:

On a sunny afternoon in May, 2015, I joined a dozen other surgeons at a downtown Boston office building to begin sixteen hours of mandatory computer training. We sat in three rows, each of us parked behind a desktop computer. In one month, our daily routines would come to depend upon mastery of Epic, the new medical software system on the screens in front of us…..Our trainer looked younger than any of us, maybe a few years out of college, with an early-Justin Bieber wave cut, a blue button-down shirt, and chinos. Gazing out at his sullen audience, he seemed unperturbed. I learned during the next few sessions that each instructor had developed his or her own way of dealing with the hostile rabble. One was encouraging and parental, another unsmiling and efficient. Justin Bieber took the driver’s-ed approach: You don’t want to be here; I don’t want to be here; let’s just make the best of it.

Physicians are leaving their professions because of burn-out, computerization, and McDonaldization of care. Their prestige and authorities are constantly threatened by new technological innovations. It seems the flexibility theory would predict that technology would empower doctors in a way that their patient outcomes would improve when they take advantage of the inevitable changes. However, life is messy, and technological advancement has not been a smooth process. Many digital adoptions in the health care industry prove to be provincial and create more bureaucracy. For example, each hospital buy a different Electronic Health Record service (EHR). If you have your dental done at a dentist’s, you have some health information in their system. But this same piece of information might not be merged to your electronic health record at your general practitioner’s office. This proliferation of servers has created a digital nightmare for doctors instead of creating an easy solution to document their patient’s health.

Again, Vallas and Beck’s paper is classic in a sense that it asks an important question: how does work organization change when a new technology is introduced to a work place? This question is more pertinent today than ever before because of the speed at which technology has been changing. How would AI change work relations in big and small firms? Where can one study this change? Should companies have in-house AI experts, or should they contract the services out to another company? These are important financial, and political questions that each company has to deal with in an age of data abundance.

Training for Marathon

Over the Thanksgiving dinner last Thursday, I talked with a group of friends about the New York Marathon. My host intimated that he had participated in it many times. It was almost a ritual for many years, until his knees became weaker, and could no longer run a long distance. Ever since he switched to cycling, which was less taxing to his aging body. It was  his enthusiasm that charmed me. I decided at the dinner table that I would give it a try. Maybe one day I could also participate in the New York Marathon. Other two guests, who lived in Philadelphia suggested that I should first aim for a half marathon at the Philly Marathon because it would be easier than the New York one. Each had their own opinion about how to train for a marathon, and whether it was a solitary endeavor, or a social event. My host suggested that it would be mostly a one-woman show with some group activities in between until the race. By the end of the dinner, I was convinced that I should give it a try. Besides, I also received an old Fitbit as a gift to track my training. The following day, instead of rushing to a store for Black Friday sales, I rushed to the Central Park for my first training section.

At 8AM the following day, I put on some running gears, headed southward to Central Park. As soon as I stepped outside of the apartment building, the cold hit my internal organs. First, I was under-dressed. The temperature was a lot lower than expected. My lung took in so much cold wind that at some point I felt as if it would have been chilled to below 40 degree had I stayed outside for too long. Even after 15 minutes of jogging, my legs didn’t warm up. They were surrounded by freezing winds without any appropriate protection. My ears also felt numb. After only 20 minutes, I decided to go home because my body could not really bear the outside temperature with less than appropriate clothing. I jogged home. My mileage was pathetically low: 1.8 miles.

The second day went a bit smoother, I put on the warmest coat that I could find in my closet. My head and ears were protected by a light wool bean hat. The problem then became overdressing! Yet I was protected. Headed to the Central Park at 8 o’clock in the morning, I joined many other New Yorkers running with me. Contrary to what my friend said, I was actually running with people, lots of people: old people, young people, teenagers, athletes, even dogs. Suddenly from a solitary activity I found solidarity with lots of co-runners. I didn’t need to know them in person, but I feel a connection immediately because I was doing something similar to what they were doing. The affinity reminded me of the concept “social infrastructure” coined by sociologist Eric Klinnenberg. As intuitive as the term suggests, any infrastructure that brings people together is social infrastructure. In his new book, Places for People,  he suggests that it is glue that binds people and communities together. Furthermore, a commitment to build these places is essential to have a cohesive and civil society. In my case, Central Park was the essential social infrastructure where my lone endeavor of training for a half marathon inadvertently became a social event which I started looking forward to every day. The social aspect of running inevitably drew me into this training and commitment even further.

While enjoying the atmosphere of Central Park on a beautiful Saturday, I ran so far off track, and found myself on the east side, near all the big museums. A sign of the Cooper Hewitt Museum suggested that I should turn back before it was too late. I headed home and completed my first 5-mile run. What a triumph!

Feeling a part of a bigger movement was not exclusive to Central Park alone. When I got home, I skyped with a friend who is currently living in Singapore. I told him that I just went out for a run and completed 5 miles that morning. While my PhD life has been boring lately because I am preparing for orals (a second exam in my PhD), which means there is a lot of lone reading time, his life in Singapore was also not at all exciting. Yet when we started changing the topic to my trying to run for a half marathon, the conversation suddenly became lively, and full of energy. Unbeknown to me he is also a runner and would participate in a half marathon run in a week or two.  He started sending me information about dieting, how to avoid injuries while running, and how to let my body rest sufficiently each week. We were encouraging each other to run more often. I asked him on how to fund-raise for some of the causes that were dear to me. This topic bonded us. Half way across the world did not feel like a long distance. I felt as if he was still my friend whom I met while in college: still full of excitement, and wanting to try new things every day. I felt better informed after talking to him about my goal, training plan, and diet regime, etc.

Since then I have been jogging 3 miles every other day, with a rest day in between. I now sleep like baby and feel so much happier with my body. Sometimes as an academic I just forget what my body can do to me. I often overwork my brain without giving sufficient attention to other parts, and the body as a whole. The positive energy I feel after a run reminds me of the Interaction Ritual Chains thesis, where sociologist Randall Collins proposes that “successful rituals create symbols of group membership and pump up individuals with emotional energy, while failed rituals drain emotional energy.” This predicts that individuals would engage in interactions where they gain the most emotional payoffs. Any activity that could be done socially would have some emotional return. To me, I am now engaging in running, and I can relate to other runners regardless of their level. Running makes me happy. Any interaction with a runner promises some level of satisfaction.

After the talk with my friend in Singapore, I became convinced that I could take part in a 10K run in less than a month. My goal is not to be the fastest runner. It is simply to finish the race, and prove that with persistence 10K is achievable. My PhD journey is oftentimes likened to a marathon.  One can run, but it doesn’t mean that one can run for 26.2 miles over the course of 5+ hours. It is a strenuous process which requires one to zoom in on a singular goal which is to cross the finishing line. I am enjoying my PhD life. But since I have crossed the half point of my journey already, I am actually looking forward to increase the speed, and finish the run in a timely manner.

 

 

Societal Transition from Production to Consumption

Shopping teaches us how to live in a market society.

Points of Purchase, Sharon Zukin

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and after the dinner is over, many households in the United States would get themselves in the cars, go to the malls, stand in line, wait for super sales on Black Friday across the country. I dread black Friday shopping. I dread shopping in general. Sometimes I could not understand why people enjoy going shopping, and buying items that they dont even use. It is a waste of time, and resources to me. If I have time, I would prefer to consume a good book in a quiet corner of my house with a cup of coffee, or matcha tea. As Thanksgiving draws closer, I ask myself the question of why Americans keep religiously going to Black Friday sales despite many reports about accidents that happen on that day.  The more important questions are what is the nature of consumer society that America finds itself in, and when America made a transition from a production-oriented society to a consumption-oriented society. As a sociologist, I go to the literature of my discipline for an answer. Specifically, I read texts that deal with the changing nature of political economy, and also the changing nature of consumption. This blog post aims to answer the two questions: what is the nature of American consumption society, and when did it start becoming the main organizing principle?

First, it seems that the post-industrial society helped to usher in the consumer society. Once society no longer revolves around production, and manufacturing factories were shipped overseas, it moves to the realm of consumption.  This organizing principle affects how individuals experience themselves, and express themselves. The switch happened somewhere in the 60s or the 70s. From a Marxist point of view, all workers are consumers, but not all consumers are workers. We, workers, need to consume in order to make the capitalist economy function. In the documentary Inequality for All, former secretary of labor, Robert Reich makes the point that when the middle-class are strong they they consume; their consumption creates jobs, thus strengthening the economy. In contrast, if the returns of investment are disproportionately reaped by the management and capitalist classes, they do not consume as much, and cannot create as many jobs. The extra cash that they don’t spend will be saved to speculate on other assets as they see fit. In other words, they will take out cash that could be invested in productive sectors of the economy, and put it into as speculative sectors such as real estate, or stock market. This is not good for the economy in general. Consumers have power to change the course of the economy, and strengthening the middle class are the central message. Reich seems to focus explicitly on the middle class, and the term consumption is synonymous to  the middle class. Yet, how the consumer society came into being is certainly a more complicated picture than just the expansion of American middle class.

The sociologist Sharon Zukin has written many books that focus on the question of  political economy changes, and their impacts on individuals and their relationship to society. One book of interest where she talks about the transition from a production-oriented society to consumption-oriented one is Landscapes of Power. In this book Zukin  examines different urban spaces that symbolize the material reality and power dynamics of the market economy.  One example is Detroit, a rustbell city, and another example is Disney Land, a dream land of a consumer society. Another book, Points of Purchase  goes deeper into the lived experience of individuals in a consumer society. She specifically zooms in on the act of shopping, how it shapes the self, and its relationship to society. Shopping places tell a story of urban consumption, and they are not innocuous spaces where every customer is treated with the same level of respect. They are also dark places that reflect social biases and prejudices.

Since the nineties, shopping has become our principal strategy for creating value….With the shift of the economy toward consumption, and our weaker attachment to traditional art forms, religions, and politics, shopping has come to define who we, as individuals, are and what we, as a society, want to become.

Sharon argues that the American way of life in terms of shopping changed in the 90s. We hang out at the mall. Shopping malls replace traditional public institutions such as churches and libraries. Consumers have an illusion of democracy where they feel as if they share the same space with people from different classes. New York epitomizes this idea. Every single block in Manhattan is covered with businesses on the first floors. Tourists and New Yorkers alike are spending more of their time in commercial venues than spending time with their friends and families at public squares, parks, or museums. One gain cultural capital via learning what to shop and how to shop. In the twenty-first century, when everyone has a cell phone in their pocket, shopping becomes an effortless act of finger typing, and swiping on the smartphone screens. Shops might not be physically available, but shopping is ubiquitous.

Another book that I read recently that deals with the working class in a consumer society is Working for Respect, which I wrote a book review here. Currently I am re-reading it with a reading group, and other members have pointed out many arguments that I missed in my first reading of the book. We have been talking about the power of consumers over workers in forcing the company to acknowledge its responsibility to the workers. At one point we talked about how nowadays consumers have more power over the company than workers. The case in point is Walmart. Given how anti-union Walmart is, and that Walmart has a way to organize workers in a way that each worker is replaceable. Even if 20% of Wal-Mart workers go on strike, the company could still function, and the workers might risk losing their jobs at the end. In this day and age, if consumers boycott the company, it might be a more effective bargaining tactic to change work conditions for workers. One can see various examples in real life. For example, fair trade coffee where consumers are supposed to pay more, such that the profits can go directly to coffee growers in the developing world. This type of consumption ethics is prevalent in a consumer society.

I have come to realize that I my relationship with shopping has been complicated. I used to hate shopping for clothing because I had trouble with my body image. Now I enjoyed shopping for clothes a little bit more as I figured out quite a bit about my taste, how to negotiate with shop keepers, and what to buy for which occasions. More importantly, being financially independent plays a large role in changing the relationship with shopping. I dont need to ask for anybody’s permission to buy a dress. It seems I am gradually incorporated into this consumer society of America.

Book Review: 10 Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts by Jaron Lanier

After the 2016 presidential election in the United States, and the Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018, many people have started leaving social media including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram en masse. However, social media culture, like hook-up culture on campus, affects everyone regardless of whether they opt in or not. I myself have thought about quitting social media many times, yet I never successfully made the transition. I simply have too many accounts. My life is too reliant on social media. The system of social media accounts is too convoluted that as an individual if I delete all, I would become empty. I am afraid of that void. While looking for some ways to rationalize the decision to be less connected in this networked world, I picked up the book Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts by Jaron Lanier to learn how he justifies the decision to delete all social media accounts.

In a nutshell, the book “argues in ten ways that what has become suddenly normal – pervasive surveillance and constant, subtle manipulation – is unethical, cruel, dangerous, and inhumane.” In other words, Lanier suggests that in totality a system of all social media accounts has become “unethical, cruel, dangerous and inhumane.” Therefore, one should not participate in it, support its existence, and its reproduction.

The ten arguments are summarized on the back cover as follows:

Argument one:  You are losing your free will.

Argument two: Quitting social media is the most finely targeted way to resist the insanity of our times.

Argument three: Social media is making you into an asshole.

Argument four: Social media is undermining truth.

Argument five: Social media is making what you say meaningless.

Argument six: Social media is destroying your capacity for empathy.

Argument seven: Social media is making you unhappy.

Argument eight: Social media doesn’t want you to have economic dignity.

Argument nine: Social media is making politics impossible.

Argument ten: Social media hates your soul.

He works out the argument one by one using the term BUMMER which stands for “Behaviors of Users Modified, and Made into an Empire for Rent.” It is “a machine, a statistical machine that lives in the computing clouds.”  There are two main parts to his definition of BUMMER: modification of users’ behaviors, and rent seeking endeavor.

How do social media companies modify users’ behaviors? This question leads Lanier to give us a brief overview of what behaviorism is, and how this approach has become very influential in social media companies. In brief, behaviorism is a scientific movement that studies ways to train animals and humans. It arose before computers. Behaviorists focus on the environment where certain behaviors are produced, and reproduced. The implication is that when the environment is changed, the behavior is also changed.

What is rent-seeking? This is an economic term that describes one’s activity to increase one’s share of existing wealth without creating new wealth. This behavior can have harmful effect to the economy because of poor allocation of available resources.

In many ways, social media companies seek rent by offering a free platform for users to exchange information while altering their behaviors via algorithmic manipulations. Since users’ behaviors can be manipulated via these platforms, they can be also manipulated by other factors such as their social networks, bots, and foreign intelligence agencies during elections, etc. The one sharing place on the Internet that Lanier believes to not have been colonized by corporate interests is podcasts. I share his view on this, and have blogged about the democratization effect of podcasting, where individual broadcasters can reach out to their audience directly, instead of going through various distributional channels that are known to be biased, and dominated by a certain group of people. Lanier suggests that it is possible to corrupt the podcast space. However, given the current technology, it is very difficult.

I am buying into various arguments that Lanier brings up to convince each individual to quit social media. From a sociological point of view, Lanier is setting up a system of arguments to show detrimental effects of social media to each individual in a society. It is also harmful to society at large when each individual is easily manipulated.

On the macro-level, Lanier is right that social media as the whole has done more harm than good to society. Yet, on a personal level, I feel so conflicted about deleting one account at at time. For example, I belong to the Facebook generation. Everyone keeps in touch with their friends (childhood friends, college friends, backpacking friends, etc.) on Facebook. It is a casual place to strike a conversation. Now if I close Facebook permanently I dont know what my friends are up to. Keeping in touch with them will be more difficult. Even my parents follow me on Facebook to get a glimpse of what I do sometimes. Then my Twitter account is explicitly used for academic purposes such as following eminent public sociologists, whose ideas, and insights are relevant to my work. Now if I get rid of this channel, I feel as if I dont know what my field is talking about any more. The fear of losing out is taking over my thought processes. Then should I trust Lanier at all if he has never started a social media account to start with?

As a scientist, I see that the book comes short because it only presents a rough sketch of ten arguments with not much substantial evidence. Call me dogmatic if you will, but I would prefer some rigorous research to tease out each one of the ten arguments that Lanier makes. He presents many theories,  hypotheses, insider’s information, and sometimes good stories. These hypotheses could be tested in the real world. For example, Argument Five states that “social media is making what you say meaningless.” The logic is that when everyone can broadcast their own opinion, the meaning of what one says decreases significantly.  From a neoclassical economic point of view, this makes sense because when there is more supply of words/ messages, the price (here is meaning) of what one has to say should reduce. But how can I see this in real life? Is there a way to quantify meaning? How do I know that social media is the main factor that causes quality of conversation and messages that I broadcast to decrease? Or is it a general trend in an info-glut society, and social media is just one of the many tools that inundate each individual with information? There are too many confounding factors to have a conclusive statement about effects of social media on meaning. That said, I still agree with Lanier that social media plays a decisive role in eroding real and meaningful conversations.

In conclusion, the little book called Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts gives social media users a lot of ideas why they should leave these platforms at least for a brief period of time. As an insider, a computer scientist, and someone who cares about the effects of digital technology on society, Lanier gives us many insights to appreciate. As a social scientist, I think this book contains many valuable hypotheses to test. That is to say, one can use this book as a guide to come up with some extensive research agenda that examines effects of social media on society.

Gemeinschaft vs. Gesellschaft

Gemeinschaft is old; Gesellschaft is new as a name and as a phenomenon.

Community & Society, Ferdinand Tonnies

When Amazon announced that it would build one of its two second  headquarters (dubbed H2Q) in Queens, New York, Queens residents got really upset. Many condemned Major Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo. The reason being that politicians would subsidize a corporation to create very few jobs, while one social consequence would be a destruction of communities. In other words, in order to gain some handful number of jobs, politicians are willing to give up prime real estate, and livelihood of thousands of people. Most likely, they would be displaced once highly-paid Amazon employees move into their neighborhoods. New York’s newly elected congresswoman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has spoken out about  Amazon’s building its second headquarters in Queens. She represents the voice of the community, and says that the community is not happy about this decision from both Amazon, and the politicians of New York. Screen Shot 2018-11-17 at 11.07.48

As a sociologist, I wonder what the community in this context means. Not trying to be a post-modern theorist, and deconstructing every word that Ocasio-Cortez uses, I just want to sociologically, and theoretically understand the concept “community” being used in political discussions in the United States. This concept is being used frequently both in the scientific discipline of sociology, and used in common daily discussions. The context that I hear the most from media has to do with activism. Activists would call the Asian American community, black community, LGBTQ community, etc. The idea is that these people share some well-defined identity, and they can work together to solve a common issue. Each individual can be a part of various communities for as complex human beings we have different social identities. When I was living in Vietnam, and in Germany, I did not hear this concept being used much. I wonder whether in those two countries, social identities are less fluidly defined. Anyhow, as a sociologist, I went back to the history of my discipline, looked up the concept, and tried to think through how I could use the concept “community” rigorously.

The concept community in sociology can be traced back to the German sociologist, Ferdinand Tönnies, who in 1887 defined the concept in a book called Gemeinschaft & Gesellschaft. Roughly translated, Gemeinschaft is community, and Gesellschaft is society. Specifically, he defines:

The theory of Gemeinschaft starts from the assumption of perfect unity of human wills as an original or natural condition which is preserved in spite of actual separation. This natural condition is found in manifold forms because of dependence on the nature of the relationship between individuals who are differently conditioned.

Whereas,

Gesellschaft, an aggregate by convention and law of nature, is to be understood as a multitude of natural and artificial individuals, the wills, and spheres of whom are in many relations with and to one another, and remain nevertheless independent of one another and devoid of mutual familiar relationships.

Tönnies divides social groupings into two categories according to social ties. In a Gemeinschaft, social ties are often strong. Therefore, there are unity, and intimate connections between members. One can think of a family unit as a community, where everyone is caring for each other, and maintains an interest in each other’s well beings. In contrast, a Gesellschaft is comprised of weak ties, and social connections are mostly defined by abstract social contracts instead of concrete social intimacy. Members are dependent on one another in a Gemeinschaft, while they are independent from each other in a Gesellschaft.

An individual is an social atom, and is living for himself instead of for other people in a Gesellschaft.

In Gesellschaft every person strives for that which is to his own advantage and he affirms the actions of others only in so far as and as long as they can further his interest.

Social relations are of instrumental use for an individual in a Gesellschaft. He uses these connections to “further his interest”. 

However, when we comes back to the original example, where Queens residents voice their frustration through Ocasio-Cortez, they speak with a sense of unity. They are not using Ocasio-Cortez instrumentally as an individual should do in a Gesellschaft of New York City. What this example shows is that within a Gesellschaft, there are many Gemeinschafts. 

As I am preparing for my oral exam in urban sociology, I cannot help but ask: why do sociologists especially urban sociologists care about the distinction between Gemeinschaft & Gesellschaft? One answer could be that because a Gemeinschaft can bring people together because of its unity, while Gesellschaft gives its members flexibility to move up, and out of their various Gemeinschafts. Weak ties are not always bad. That is why one of the most famous sociology papers is titled “Strength of Weak Ties.”    Despite the fact that technology may have change the former communities, it helps to form new communities.  As human beings, we desire for intimate connection, and a sense of belonging. Therefore, the concept Gemeinschaft will never get old. 

It would be a fool of me to say that I understand everything that Tönnies outlines in his book. Instead, I looked for some video that explains the concepts more clearly with visual illustrations. One very good YouTube video that I found is the following one, which is appropriate for any undergraduate sociology course:

Seattle: A City of Possibilities

Early in the fall, I had a chance to visit Seattle for a weekend. It turned out to be a wonderful trip. I got to enjoy the hipster scene in downtown Seattle at night, visit the iconic Pike Place Market, indulge every single third culture coffee drip in the town, poke around the artisanal food scene, microbreweries, and of course consume marijuana like a real tourist. Furthermore, I got to catch up with a long-time friend, who happened to attend a conference in town, and made some new friends along the way. There is nothing better than enjoying a nice city with a group of interesting people.

At the end of the trip, I was asked to write a blog post about the wonderful and mighty Seattle. The question being raised was: Would you move to Seattle? Without any hesitation, I answered yes. However, the blog post has been delayed for quite a while because I wanted to think through my decision, or thinking with my fingers as my writing professor would call it. Why did I say yes then, and have I changed my mind now?

Seattle skyline is beautiful with the iconic Space Needle to be the signature of its urban landscape. It reminds me of another iconic tower that is dear to my heart: the TV tower, Fernsehturm, in East Berlin. On the background, the majestic Mount Rainier dominates the landscape. The mountain on the background of Seattle reminds a visitor of the relationship between the iconic Mount Fuji and the city Tokyo. It is a perfect marriage of urban landscape, man-made structure and the almighty and beautiful natural landscape. On Elliot Bay, the giant Great Wheel reminds one of the London eye. Moreover, Seattle’s rainy weather resembles London’s weather so much. Then hilly  streets that lead to the bay make one wonder whether one is lost in San Francisco. In short, Seattle has various endearing features of all great cities in the world.

On the flight to Seattle, I happened to sit next to a New York retiree lawyer, who grew up in Seattle. When being asked what should one do in the city, she answered by telling her childhood stories growing up next to the Pacific Ocean. Her dad was a military man, involved briefly in the Vietnam War. They ended up moving to the Pacific Northwest because he got a job building the navy in Seattle back in the late 60s or early 70s. I gathered her childhood was cheerful, and Seattle has been a stable home base. She was on her way back to visit her family members. At one point, she took out her iPhone, and showed various pictures of the house where she grew up. It was a ginormous  suburban house right next to the ocean, with mountains on three sides. Her story charmed me immediately, and in on the 5 hours flight, I filled in the rest her stories with my own imagination. Imagine how awesome it would be to live in Seattle: going to the bay in the afternoon, and swimming every once in a while. Why wouldnt one want to live there?

During the weekend, I enjoyed various seafood dishes in the City. Having heard that Bainbridge, an island off the coast of Seattle, had a little town feeling, I spent a day to go there, and walked around the town. The ferry ride across the bay was beyond description. I wanted to just move straight to this part of the world.

Then I also visited Bellevue, an upscale, expensive area where most tech companies have their head quarters there. My various Lyft drivers were accidentally turned into tour guides because I asked questions about their impressions of each neighborhood. They talked about their communities, properties price, social problems in Seattle caused by the tech industry. They brought me closer to what is actually experienced by the local residents. Many of them are driven out of the city because of skyrocketing real estate price.

Homelessness is a big issue. Many volunteered to be homeless to protest again increasing home price caused by the tech industry. They talked about how Amazon negotiated with the City to not have to pay corporate taxes. They talked about deteriorating infrastructure because the city doesn’t have enough money to build new roads. They talked about the differential power between tech giants, the city and the local residents. Seattle is a social laboratory for me as a social scientist. There are so many problems to analyze, and to find solutions for. It seems that I would find myself some social problem to solve if I end up there one day.

The question is not so much about whether I would move to Seattle.  Essentially it is about whether I  would trade New York City for Seattle?

In the past three years living in the city, I have become a happy New Yorker. The city provides both: chaos and order. New York has both the past and the future. New York has the part of immigration history that I dearly love. New York has literary institutions, museums, cultural institutions.My mind is constantly stimulated by intellectual exchanges with a diverse group of people. In other words, New York is full of culture; whereas Seattle is full of nature, and possibilities.

New York is layering up like an onion. After one peels a layer, there are million more layers to peel. I am still loving New York. The more I live here, the more things about New York I find out, and the more I adore it. The love for New York is only deepened over time. It is not love at first sight. My affection and appreciation for New York is like a feeling for good wine. The more one is experienced with wine, the more one is appreciative of a good old wine. New York is a full-bodied, smooth red wine. It has complex taste that is never appealing to teetotalers, but is a must for a wine connoisseur because of its layering of taste. One can be frustrated in this city, but this frustration  arises out of care, and deep connection to to the city.

Would I still move to Seattle? Yes, when I feel that I can leave New York, when I want to have a house, and when I want to raise a family. I think Seattle is a great place for somebody in their thirties, but as of now, I am enjoying my life as a New Yorker.

New Urbanism: Nostalgia for Communities

Technology reinforces the idea that local communities are archaic, even while making their image more available.

Landscapes of Power, Sharon Zukin

While studying for my oral test in urban sociology, I spend much of my time thinking about the concept “community,” and various conflicts between community and capital/market, and the state.  In the blog post about urbanism, which  describes the study of the urban, and inhabitants in the city. That implies that urbanism also studies different communities that are formed in the precinct of a city. Studying community is such an important part of urban sociology that the main sociology journal which focuses on urban sociology is called City & Community . In this blog post, I aim to explore the concept new urbanism, and how new urbanists conceptualize “community.”

Wikipedia defines new urbanism as:

An urban design movement which promotes environmentally friendly habits by creating walkable neighborhoods containing a wide range of housing and job types. It arose in the United States in the early 1980s, and has gradually influenced many aspects of real estate development, urban planning, and municipal land-use strategies.

The definition suggests that it is an urban design movement, which turns away from suburbanization, and promotes environmentally friendly neighborhoods. It started out in the 80s, and has had influenced on urban planning, and land-use strategies in the United States since. The key idea here is the concept “walkable.” What does it mean by having a walkable neighrbood? As opposed to what?

By digging a bit deeper, I figured out that this entire notion of walkable neighborhood is directly opposed to the idea that an urban neighborhood is built for cars. Prior to 1980s, cities were centered around cars, and the highways. Jane Jacobs had to write a book called The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961 to defend an urban way of life that would be threatened by cars, and constructions of highways in the city. She saw that Greenwich Village, her urban village would be destroyed by cars. There would be no more sociability on the streets because cars would stop people walking, and converting pavements where neighbors meet one another into driveways where drivers shout at each other instead. It took two decades for Jacobs’s ideas to get into urban planning institutions, and architecture schools. Starting from the 80s, urban planners and architects proposed that urban design needed to take human life as a center of the picture. Hence, the promotion for walk-able streets, and cities. In other words, life needed to be on display.

New urbanists want to bring human factors into the city. They want to promote communal life of previous eras. There was a deep sense of nostalgic feeling about communities, and what has been lost due to the rise of modern technology such as cars, and phones. Thus, they went out of their way to build cities that display precisely that which they yearned for: commercial activities on streets, and walkable neighborhoods. However, one criticism they face is that that this movement still promotes urban sprawl, but uses the nostalgic imagery of the previous eras.

To look at how attractive the idea of  walkable cities is, one can watch the Ted talk Walkable Cities by Kent Larson, Principal Research Scientist at MIT Media Lab:

Larson points out rightly that small cities, and walkable cities are desirable. They help us to feel larger, and that humans matter. He advocates to have people and human life to be the center of city  planning. However, gradually his talk becomes how autonomous vehicles to solve mobility problems rather than how city planning can do a better job at facilitating human interactions, which are the core of the sociability issue. In many ways, the promises of a walkable city become a transportation and car industry’s solution instead of a structural and ideological change in thinking how one should live a better life in a city.  If a city is to follow Larson’s suggestion to build more autonomous vehicle that would help with traffic within a city, the lack of human interactions still remains as a problem. One still feels isolated as a city dweller.  A social problem cannot really be addressed technically if the ideology about urban life is not changed. At the end of the day the technical problem is how a city can be designed, and re-designed to accommodate the most people in the most environmentally sustainable way. In that process, new urbanists would hope to build spaces where human interactions can take place. In order to answer the question how can this challenge be solved, we should take a look at what cities most people adore, and would like to live in.

The philosopher Alain de Botton offers a solution to make a city attractive.

In this video, de Botton is very much concerned with the aesthetics of a city, and how one can organize a city based on aesthetic principles. Coming from a humanist’s point of view, de Botton shows us an ideal city where human beings are at the center of any urban design. He argues persuasively that when one looks at many modern cities nowadays, one sees corporate interests above all. This display of corporate power is a testament to our current societal interests despite the fact that we do not like to admit that corporate interests have trumped all other interests. His solution of how to bring people into the center of the urban planning picture is holistic. It requires a concerted effort of different groups of people: public policy makers, urban planners, architects, transportation engineers, and more importantly city dwellers themselves. In other words, city planning, and how to create a live-able built environment should not be left only for technocrats. It has to be a social and political project where different interest groups can voice their opinions. According to this prescription, Larson’s solution is one-sided, and incomplete at best.

In conclusion, this new urbanism movement is a reaction to the previous development of big cities which value cars more than people. The idea of walkable cities looks to the past for inspiration about how a community should live. However, in practice the domain of how to change the lived environment in the United States is pretty much left to technocrats such as urban planners, architects, and transportation engineers, who design the city according to what they think as best for human interactions, and to display human life.  In other words, “community” as a concept is evoked to justify urbanization, and commercialization of certain spaces.

Investigative Journalism in the Age of Trump

I have written a review of Bad Blood by the journalist John Carreyrou of Wall Street Journal. His book documents the rise and fall of Theranos, a medical tech startup. After having written the review, and read more about Carreyrou’s work. Then I wondered what investigative journalism is, what it takes to become an investigative reporter, how do they work, and what their role is in the age of mis-information.

The first time I seriously thought about the fancy term – investigative journalism – was when one of my roommates shared that she aspired to become an investigative journalist. At first, I thought when most journals were struggling because of the Internet and the rise of social media, becoming a journalist was a bad idea. Stable jobs were a rarity, and all journals had been going through serious financial crises, and corporate restructuring. After reading Bad Blood, reading about John Carreyrou, Chris Hedges, and other high-profile investigative journalists, I have changed my mind about journalism in this day and age. Specifically, I have become to admire them more because their work really has social impact while it is not oftentimes well compensated financially.

What is investigative journalism?

Wikipedia provides a general definition of the profession:

Investigative journalism is a form of journalism in which reporters deeply investigate a single topic of interest, such as serious crimes, political corruption, or corporate wrongdoing. An investigative journalist may spend months or years researching and preparing a report. Practitioners sometimes use the terms “watchdog reporting” or “accountability reporting”.

The topic of interest often deals with crimes, political corruption, and corporate wrong doing. That means, their topics must be of interest to a wide audience, and that their reporting has an influence on both the public, the population, and public policy. In terms of length of investigation, it can take for months or years. This is literally like a research project that one does in graduate school. Theoretically it can take even longer than graduate school work. In many ways, investigative reporting is akin to scholarly work.

These reporters are also called “muckrakers,” which references reform-minded American journalists in the Progressive Era. In other words, investigative journalism as what we know to day is very much a part of American history.

How much do investigative journalists get paid?

According to Paysacale.com, the median income of investigative journalists is $62,034 per annum. That means they get paid a little bit more than regular journalists, whose average income is $52,162 per annum according to Glassdoor.com. In New York City, journalists earn a bit higher salary than the national average. They earn on average $75,151 a year (also according to Glassdoor.com).

My roommate who had a legal training. She’s obviously qualified to become an investigative journalist. However, her income would be so much lower if she decided to become a journalist instead of a corporate lawyer.

Why investigative journalism important?

Because it helps to strengthen and maintain a healthy democracy. Its function is to reveal the truth, to root out facts which people want to keep hidden, to re-establish fairness. In era of info-glut, and mis-information, investigative reporting is more important than ever because it can lead to social change.  Movies such as Spotlight, and books such as Bad Blood show that journalists in the quest of revealing the truth, they have to take risks when dealing with powerful individuals and institutions.

What does it take to become  an investigative journalist?

A stock answer would be to obtain a degree in journalism. For example, one can get an associate’s degree, bachelor’s degree, or a master’s degree from colleges, and journalism schools. One can also become an investigative journalist from different routes such as obtaining a law degree, or a bachelor degree in another field. For example, John Carreyrou, the author of Bad Blood, actually got a bachelor’s degree in political science and government. So it is not necessary that one needs a degree in journalism to do investigative reporting.

As a sociologist, I am curious to know about the reporters’ jobs in the age of mis-information, post-truth and fake news. How do they assure the public that what they are reporting is the truth, and how do the convince the public about their credibility when the president of the United States blatantly calls them to be fake news, and discredit them on national TV. As an avid reader, my safe choice is to first go and read some important investigative reporting in forms of books, and long reads.

Below is a list of books and documentaries that would give one an entry into the genre of investigative journalism. Some books are biographies or autobiographies that help to bring the reader into the world of investigative reporting. Many journalists here specialize on war reporting. Another source that one can learn about how important good journalism is in this day and age is the TV show, The Fourth Estate on Showtime. If you have any recommendation, please drop me a line of suggestion in the comments section.

What is Urbanism?

Currently I am preparing for a qualifying exam in urban sociology. The plan is to get it done by February of 2019. In the course of preparation, I have been reading many classical and contemporary texts in urban sociology. One question that arose along the way is what is urbanism? It’s a central concept in many disciplines that have to do with the urban such as urban planning, architecture, and of course urban sociology.

With the question in mind, I started looking for the answer on Wikipedia, texts in my disciplines, and even YouTube.

First and foremost, Wikepedia defines “urbanism” as:

the study of how inhabitants of urban areas, such as towns and cities, interact with the built environment.

The definition suggests that it is a study, and it looks at the interaction between mostly human and the built environment.

Now, to break this definition even further, I searched the concept on Youtube, and listened to people who seem to understand the concept, who would explain it to me visually.

This is an interesting video that I found, even though it doest really directly explain the concept:

Having done some Internet searching, I go back to the classical text in my discipline that defines the concept and rigorously defines, and operationalizes it. The text is

Wirth, L. (1938). Urbanism as a Way of Life. American journal of sociology, 44(1), 1-24.

Wirth attempts to explain the emerging phenomenon of urbanization in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century. He argues that city, and the urban are not only a place that a lot of people live, and work, it exerts more influence than that. There is culture in a city.

The influences which cities exert upon the social life of man are greater than the ratio of the urban population would indicate, for the city is not only in ever larger degrees the dwelling-place and the workshop of modern man, but it is the initiating and controlling center of economic, political and cultural life that has drawn the most remote parts of the world into its orbit and woven diverse areas, peoples, and activities into a cosmos.

His description of life in the cities makes us think about the galaxy. The relationship between the city to towns is likened to the relationship between the sun to planets. It seems that the city attracts town people, and at the same time the city radiates energy, and influence to town people. There is more to a city than just its infrastructure, and the sheer numbers of inhabitants. When people live next to each other, there are interactions, from which there arise social problems, and sometimes social magic.

In order to formulate his sociological theory of urbanism, Wirth defines a city as

a relatively large, dense, and permanent settlement of socially heterogeneous individuals.

In many ways, the definition is relatively flexible in terms of size, density. However, one important criterion is that the city has to be inhabited by a heterogeneous group of people. Heterogeneous here is broadly defined. People can be different in their racial, class, cast, and occupational identities.

Then Wirth goes on explaining what his theory of urbanism is. He suggests that from a sociological point of view:

The central problem … is to discover the forms of social action and organization that typically emerge in relatively permanent, compact settlements of large numbers of heterogeneous individuals.

He then points out three important characteristics of a city: large number of inhabitants, density, and heterogeneity. Those are the main focus of his theory of urbanism. From each characteristic, there would be corresponding hypotheses to explain how the city reproduces itself, and how each characteristic would affect individuals living in the city.

In conclusion, he suggests that empirical research on the urban should pay attention to the three characteristics. And he sketches various approaches that one can take:

Urbanism as a characteristic mode of life may be approached empirically from three interrelated perspectives: (1) as a physical structure comprising a population base, a technology, and an ecological order, (2) as a system of social organization involving a characteristic social structure, a series of social institutions, and a typical pattern  of social relationships; and (3) as a set of attitudes and ideas and a constellation of personalities engaging in typical forms of collective behavior and subject to characteristic mechanisms of social control.

An urban sociologist can study many things in a city: from infrastructure to social institution to attitudes and ideas. That is to say there is a rich landscape of possible empirical research topics for an urban sociologist. This text is promoting a development of a sub-field in sociology. Since the publication of this text, urban sociology has evolved, and indeed many have taken his suggestions to study infrastructure (roads, buildings), social institutions (churches, urban schools), and ideas (culture). One thing that I know for sure is that the field is huge, and one has to make an effort to distinguish oneself from myriad other urban studies scholars.

 

 

 

Ambi-dependent self: A paradox

I have a weird obsession with reading especially when my mind is troubled with something. One time When I had fight with my mom during my teenage years, I became very angry. My reaction was unexpectedly violent. It was a surprise to both me and my mom. I could not believe that I lost my composure. The day after, instead of talking to my friends, my relatives about it, I googled the symptoms, and tried to figure out on my own what it was that made me become so angry at my mom. I read for half a day and concluded that my behavior resulted from some cognitive and emotional dissonance. I probably had experienced  some unreasonable request from my mom. Possibly I had expected respect and privacy, and my mom had not delivered it. A violation of teenage privacy was the source of emotional dissonance because I had expected that after having lived together for almost two decades, my mom must have figured out how to handle my introspection. Somehow, my expectation was never transmitted properly to my mom. Regardless, the complicated relationship between my mom and me was a big part in triggering my disturbing behavior, and I was surprised by how much I was primed for a behavior that was categorized as disrespectful.

Now as a young scholar who is trying to figure out my scholarly identity, I constantly ask myself questions like What kind of scholar I am? What is my singular identity that people would remember ? It is the idea that a scholar’s name is attached to a particular idea, a school of thought. For example, Freud is remembered to be a psychologist who interprets dreams. He’s known for concepts such as Oedipus complex, transference, etc. I would like to become a scholar like Freud. That is to say, when another scholar articulates my name, they are reminded of concepts that I come up with. Yet, I am not there. This scholarly identity is still a work in progress. Sometimes I conceptualize it as a sculpture. The core of the work is there, but its shape is not yet formed. Maybe it would take years to create a contour and depth to it. To tame my anxiety, I picked up a book to understand my dissonance.

The book is The Girl at the Baggage Claim by Gish Jen. I have written about Gish Jen’s influence on my thinking as a writer on this blog before.  The book I picked up this time is not a novel. It is categorized as a work of social science. In many ways it is a full-blown version of her 3-essay book:  Tiger Writing,  where she uses the concepts “interdependent self” and “independent self” to explain different approaches of Eastern and Western artists, particularly writers. The Girl at the Baggage Claim uses similar concepts “interdependent self” and “independent self” to explain different approaches in the East and in the West for everything. Basically it is a book about the different world views, and how these different inner worldviews of individuals would lead to different approaches and outcomes in various fields: commercial, scholarship, arts, etc. As a talented writer, Gish Jen deftly creates a metaphor of an avocado pit to describe a Western self, and a flexi-self an Eastern one. The book is about how these selves behave and approach things differently. As the metaphors suggest, a Western self, an avocado pit is the core of a person. It is tangible. It is not visible, but it contours seem to be definable.  It is the authentic self that everyone aims to get at and understands it themselves. The Sociologist Sharon Zukin in trying to define the concept authenticity, traces the concept back to the time period between the ages of Shakespeare and Rousseau, the period

when men and women began to think about an authentic self as an honest or a true character, in contrast to an individual’s dishonesty, on the one hand, and to society’s false morality, on the other. Naked City

 

Both Gish Jen and Sharon Zukin argue that an authentic self is what defines every individual in the West. It speaks about the nature of a person. In order to get at this self, an individual needs to take time to discover who he/she is. That is the reason why one goes on various quests such as traveling alone, participating in self-discovery journeys to give this avocado pit contours and depth. In contrast, an eastern flexi-self is developed in relation to other social actors in social context. In other words, the flexi-self is relational while the authentic self is static.

Using Gish Jen’s concepts, I can see through my struggle more clearly. First, why am I struggling? Because I am living in a culture that values the authentic self rather than the relational self. That means in the process that I construct, create, develop and find out my authentic scholarly self, I need to get at the bottom of my intellect. It is an individualistic quest. It requires rugged individualism to announce that a particular self is mine, to claim it, and to tell the world about that self concisely, and to remind the world about it consistently. However, a cognitive dissonance is inevitable because I was born and raised in a flexi-self culture, where a self is defined relationally. That is, I can only understand my self in relation to my peers within a social context. That is, this self is not a clear object with definitive contours. It is malleable like water, which would take the shape and form of the environment that it is in. Sometimes it is completely amorphous. Gish Jen argues that there are pros and cons to both models. The independent self could excel really well when given abundant opportunities. However, we, particularly Americans, live in an avocado-pit cult, which makes everyone to over-exaggerate the importance of their ability, and their role in society. This culture creates an obsession about one’s own image. One quality that is never praised is humility, the ability to appreciate that one’s contribution is minimal in comparison to the collective achievement. Therefore, being allowed an independent self is refreshing. In praise of the interdependent self, Gish Jen argues that it’s freeing to not have to stand out sometimes. It’s freeing to take off your guard to be a unique individual on earth sometimes. It’s freeing to not be interesting for a while. Boring-ness is allowed, and un-interestingness is allowed.

Still how can I solve my conundrum after having learned that I have both selves constantly competing for domination within me? My puzzle is that I know clearly that Western society and my profession require me to get at my avocado pit self, while my upbringing and background preconditions me to think that that my self is malleable. So what is the right way to think about my scholarly self-discovery?

Gish Jen doesn’t offer much of a solution despite providing plotted out myriads of analyses to show how different the two selves are. Her solution is rather an abstract concept than a clear roadmap. She offers the concept: ambidependence. An anmbidependent self I suppose is a person who is flexible in both forms of self: independent and interdependent.  This theoretical person has both traits: knowing when to be a unique individual, and knowing when to be a good teammate, knowing their social position in relation to people and context around them. She argues that in a global world, the number of ambi-selves is growing.  She argues that they are more flexible. Thinking about her solution from a sociological point of view, this concept bridges between the two worlds: the East and the West. It is the position to fill “a structural hole,”  in a Burtian sense. In many ways, I am moving back and forth between the two worlds, two distinct cultures. I am one of those individuals who are conditioned to develop the ability to fill various structural holes. However, the flexibility of being able to move between two worlds, to code-switch in various situations only become second nature, once I figure out the two structures, and move my way flexibly in both of them. As of now my challenge still remains. I am trying to fit in the avocado-pit cult within academia, and my interdependent self is holding me back. The mainstream culture of American academia keeps reminding me that it’s me who must be interested in a research project; it’s me who will conduct the research; it’s me who will write the book; and it’s me whom a dissertation project and research agenda will occupy for years to come. At the end, yes I am an ambi-dependent person, but I live in an avocado-pit society. In order to pursue a career whose development path is relatively established, I ought to give up some parts of my interdependent self at one point or another to make the path less painful. The more I resist against the established path, the more dissonant I would feel toward my professional development.

Personal Hobbies & Character Building

Lately I have talked with friends, family members, and graduate school mentees about the importance for having a hobby outside of work, school, and family. Why is it so important for an individual character development? The concept hobby comes up again and again in all of my discussions about how to be satisfied with oneself and with one’s life. The central question around all of my conversations is how can one feel content and happy alone independent of negative influences around?

I caught up with a Vietnamese friend, who attended Agnes Scott at the same time as I did.  Our conversation revolved around how come both of us have various recent unpleasant experience with our middle-aged mothers. We concluded that our mothers who are about to retire from their jobs are experiencing through some forms of mid-life crises. My mom’s problem is that she doesnt know what she would do when she’s a retiree. She does not have a stable hobby. Her social support system is mainly comprised of extended family members. Her friends from college and high school do not live in the same area, and work the same job as she does. When I was still living at home with her, she barely spent time with friends of her own. Most of her time was spent on kids, and extended family members. My friend’s mom displayed similar behaviors: that is, she has sacrificed too much for her family, and has not had time to discover her own desire, interests, and herself. In other words, both of our mothers have never had time to discover her true selves. Therefore, when they have extra free time without any social obligations attached, they could not figure out where to find meaning independent of their family or work. I suggested my friends to to encourage her mother to develop a hobby, something that she does for fun independent of her family. Our observation is that our parents’ generation growing up in Vietnam during the Vietnam War did not have leisure time and material wealth to pursue an individual hobby. Now it’s the time of consumption, and of globalization, they should pursue a hobby to enrich their lives, and feel content with their situations.  Of course, both of us valued the Rousseauian version of the authentic self, a true self that sets an individual apart from the crowd. It is the version of  the self that our parents were never taught to embrace. We could not fully explain to our mothers that what they were lacking in their upbringings or what the society has shaped them into who they are now; yet we know that encouraging our mothers to pursue a hobby of their own during their free time is the right thing to do. This quick conclusion made me think deeper about the role of personal hobbies in shaping individual characters in a long run.

While advising junior students how to best spend their time in graduate school, I often tell them to  pursue a hobby outside of school such as joining a choir, participating in a cycling club, doing salsa or swing dance. I personally believe that graduate school should be thought of as a full-time job instead of an all-encompassing activity that consumes one’s life completely.  Hobbies help one with work/life balance, and maintain one’s mental health for a long marathon which is called graduate school. In Grad Skool Rulz, Fabio Rojas suggested that graduate students should pursue an outside hobby that is independent of school work. It helps one remain sane to engage in productive intellectual work. I completely agree with this suggestion. Yet after having given people this abstract advice, I stumbled upon the question: what is my real hobby outside of school? I seem to be interested in many things, but I ever do one thing passionately, for a sustained period of time.

In order to answer that what question, I want to solve the why question first. Why is hobby important?

It enriches one’s life and helps to separate work and personal life for many people. It is the leisure concept in economics here that undergirds my understanding of how one could use one’s time. The more one works, the less leisure time one has to dedicate to other things such as family, hobbies, and going out. As a graduate student in their 20s, one is not often expected to perform family duties, and obligations. That means leisure time is often used for social activities, and personal hobbies. If anyone has problems with work/life balance, having a defined hobby would help. It is my way to police my previous time, and protect my mental health in graduate school.

Hobbies develop one’s character. It is about the self. One finds that one behaves differently in at a board game than at a music concert or in a trial. The idea of enriching one’s soul, one’s character is important here. Other than being a worker, a graduate student, a human being is a complex social phenomenon. I want to know a person when I approach them at a conference more than just what research they are conducting at the moment. When I was in college, I took an upper level mathematics class called Differential Equations. The professor was brilliant. I remember that his problem sets were oftentimes very difficult, and every time when I took a midterm or a final, my brain would be fried.  I would crashed after the 3-hour take-home exam. However the content that he taught is now completely oblivious to me. All the sophisticated polynomial equation manipulations just went out of my brain at the moment that I received my college degree.

What I remember most about my college math professor is his passion for designing cross-stitch patterns that bring together both his mathematical insights, and the art of cross-stitching. He designed cross stitch pattern using iterated function system. He created a software to generate those patterns for cross-stitch enthusiasts. In my last week of college, I advertised on Facebook that I was selling my knick-knacks including a cross-stitch kit because I was moving overseas.  My brilliant math professor, Larry Riddle was one of the first who showed up at my move-away sale, and bought the entire kit. I sawhappiness in his eyes when he saw the kit with lots of cloth, needles and threads. His eyes were sparkling with ideas of how to use those materials. He has won many creative awards from the American Mathematical Associations for those designs. It was the moment that I felt like I could relate on a personal level with the brilliant, yet reserved math professor. In many ways, I don’t remember much of his professional identity other than that he taught me Differential Equations. Yet I remember vividly that he’s a creative cross-stitch enthusiast. Whenever I think about my college experience, I thought of his buying my cross-stitch kit, and I could relate to him.

Hobbies are the magic glue that bind people and create a community of hobbyists. Alienation in modern society is one of the main themes in sociology. One is alienated by various factors such as work, technology, and distance. Sociologists often seek to understand how to counter this process of alienation. To me, having a hobby is definitely one solution. One can enter both online and offline communities where people share their enthusiasm about something. There are myriad of outlets to communicate and show your enthusiasm of doing something that is completely independent of other material and social gains . There are both online and offline communities for one to join. I am in many ways lucky because I live in New York where there is virtually a community for everything.  But what is exactly my hobby?

I always thought that I did not have one. Having to write this very blog post  made me I sit down, and think through how I have spent time in the past three and a half years in graduate school. What has become apparent is that I have spent a lot of time both alone and in group learning languages. Since I started graduate school until now, I have started learning three new languages: Chinese, French, and Hindi. My German level has also increased significantly because I have read more German literature and acquired broader vocabulary. The definitive answer is learning foreign languages. I am happy learning any new language. It is both challenging, and exhilarating.

Without any teacher, I can learn a new language by reading textbooks, and listening to audio tapes on my own. When I go to a polyglot gathering, I feel like I belong. People are so nice, and talk to me instantaneously in whatever language that I want to practice. I just feel pure happiness as I could spontaneously shifting from one language to another. For the past four months, in preparation for my qualifying exam, I have stopped learning languages. I have not learned any new words. I missed it very much.

Why did I never think of learning languages to be a hobby? I thought that having command of a foreign language contributes directly to the outcome of my academic productivity. In other words, I thought of learning language very instrumentally. Learning languages is a means to an end, which is to have a better academic career. However now I recognize that I am happy learning languages independent of my intellectual project. Learning languages is definitely a mental activity. Unlike crocheting, cross-stitching, and fixing bicycle, this activity requires brain power. That is the reason why I counted it to be work-related activity. But now I understand that I am happy doing it voluntarily and happily. That means learning languages is a brainy, intellectual hobby that doesn’t give you any tangible product. A person who paints could create a painting, a hobbyist ceramicist could produce china cups, etc. I don’t produce tangible products. I produce sounds and words, and maybe a meaningful conversation. Because the products have been so intangible and difficult to measure, I have pigeonholed it into the work-related activity category. Now I have seen that it is really a built-in part of my life, and that I miss it so much when I don’t do it. I recognize what a character building activity it  is to my essential self.

I have heard many stories from sociologists about what a cool sociologist Howard Becker is. Despite not having read much of his work, I am aware that Howard is a very versatile and talented man, whose intellectual and personal interests cover a wide range of activities. Many people have suggested that because of his wide range of interests, he has been able to produce many sociological monographs that cover many fields. I am hoping that one day I can turn my obsession with language into a book project.

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review: Bad Blood by John Carreyrou

About two months ago, all news media talked about the Theranos scandal, where the once unicorn startup had to shut down and liquidated because its founder, Elizabeth Holmes was indicted for wire fraud and conspiracy. Theranos was a health technology company that tried to “disrupt” the health care industry by designing a blood test device that used only a small amount of blood. This failure challenged many promises that Silicon Valley tech startups have been making all along: technology can solve many things fast. It raised many questions about Sillicon’s fake-it-till-you-make it and play-fast-and-loose culture. A couple of weeks ago while I was attempting to learn about AI technology, and its social, political implications. A social scientist mentioned to me that she was listening to an audiobook, whose name is Bad Blood to get a more nuanced understanding of the scandal. The book piqued my interest. I immediately requested it, gave it a read, and now feel that I have a better understanding of how Silicon Valley works.

What is Bad Blood about?

Originally, I thought that the nonfiction followed a traditional path of an investigative journalistic work where it would ask the questions such as who is Elizabeth Holmes, how did she come up with her startup idea, how did she make it a unicorn, why and how did it fail? In a lot of ways, it is a case study of how Silicon Valley created one of the sickest unicorn that was meddling with the health care industry. In a closer read, I found that my original thought was naïve. The book is more than just how Elizabeth Holmes rose to stardom and descended rapidly. It is a detective work where the author himself was involved in bringing down a tech darling from her unrealistic dream by exposing her lies and delusions. The book portrayed Elizabeth Holmes to be the charming, intelligent female antagonist, and the journalist at the WSJ, John Carreyrou, the author of the book to be the male protagonist, the detective who did not appear until very late in the story. Yet his journalistic instinct helped him paint an accurate picture of Theranos, its embarrassingly mediocre technology, sloppy management, and delusional culture of Silicon Valley. The shift in narrative from Elizabeth Holmes and people around her to how the journalist put the case together made the story much more convincing.

The female villain of the book is Elizabeth Holmes, the charming blond startup founder of Theranos. She dropped out of Stanford University  in 2003 to found a company that promised to test blood with a small device that could perform an array of blood tests using only one drop of blood. This promise was tempting to many investors, and corporate partners including a large swath of respectable venture capitalists, Wal-Greens, and at some point even the United States Defense Department. The book  structured chronologically.  In many ways it is a biography of a company. It has less to do with Elizabeth Holmes even though she’s a big part of it, who gave shape, form, and contour, and character to her startup. Therefore a significant amount of space in the book is dedicated to the complex character of Elizabeth Holmes. The underlying question around Holmes is why did shecreate what she created and why did she lie the way she lied to everyone?

In the process to answer this question, the author portrays other characters around her, and use the words of these characters to portray Holmes. He is like a sculpturist who creates contours and dimension to each character, and also shows the nature of relationship between different characters. What is the most striking feature of this person? How can one bring to the reader’s mind a 3-D portrayal of this character in this story?  He paints a picture of Elizabeth to be a horrible person, yet she’s very smart. She’s ruthless, controlling. Here’s Holmes from an ex-employee, a friend’s point of view, how Elizabeth was getting bad influence from her boyfriend:

In her relentless drive to be a successful startup founder, she had built a bubble around herself that was cutting her off from reality. And the only person she was letting inside was a terrible influence (her boyfriend). How could her friend [Elizabeth] not see that? (p.80)

Why did Theranos fail? The company was glutted with sloppy corporate governance, bad management, and despotism. Holmes hired her college roommate, boyfriend, and her incompetent brother to work as her closest people. She valued loyalty more than competency, and expertise. That’s not a way to go for a high-tech company. She might have over compensate because she’s young and tried to assert her authority over her well-trained brilliant employees. Her smartness could not really cover for her lack of training in the medical field. This insecurity manifested in making each department a silo. It translated in her obsession with leaking trade secrets out by surveilling her employees.

She had a vision that she genuinely believed in and threw herself into realizing. But in her all-consuming quest to be the second coming of Steve Jobs amid the gold rush of the “unicorn” boom, there came a point when she stopped listening to sound advice and began to cut corners. Her ambition was voracious and it brooked no interference. If there was a collateral damage on her way to riches and fame, so be it (p. 299).

The book really made the character Elizabeth Holmes appear like some body that one could spot in street of Silicon Valley. She was loved by the press. She was the woman engineer that everybody wanted to have in the male-dominated world of the tech industry. On her rise to stardom, the author writes:

Her journal interview had gotten some notice and there had also been a piece in Wired, but there was nothing like a magazine cover to grab people’s attention. Especially when that cover featured an attractive young woman wearing a black turtleneck, dark mascara around her piercing blue eyes, and bright red lipstick next to the catchy headline “THIS CEO IS OUT FOR BLOOD” (p. 208).

John Carreyrou was not afraid to criticize the press, including his own employer, the Wall Street Journal for having buy into Holmes’s promises early, and brought her from the periphery  to the center of national attention. This increasing publicity helped her raise money, and bring political and elite powerful people closer to her. Her company got valued a lot higher because of all those PR articles. This story makes clear the process, whereby a startup gets more funding via its inflated images portrayed by the presses. Then the press would give it even more attention for its successful rounds of funding. The startup is then swelling with funding, and flowery media images of itself. It’s a vicious circle.

One great thing about the book is that the author makes chemical and engineering processes read-able to the wider audience. What is high-tech is suddenly within grasp. For example, when talking about how a commercial blood analyzer might introduce errors, Carreyrou writes:

Alan had reservations about the dilution part. The Siemens analyzer already diluted blood samples when it performed its assays. The protocol Daniel and Sam had come up with meant that the blood would be diluted twice, once before it went into the machine and a second time inside it. Any lab director worth his salt knew that the more you tampered with a blood sample, the more room you introduced for error. 170

My favorite aspect of the book is its language: very matter-of-factly. There is no over flowery language. Everything is straight to the point. It is a long form of investigative journalism. It’s about the truth. There are great sentences for sure, but these great and stylistic sentences are not the main focus of the book. Now I understand my obsession with non-fictions when I was a teenager. When my English was not great, I preferred reading for information, and that I didnt have to guess what each symbolism meant.

Even though Carreyrou writes with a matter-of-factly tone, his superb writing skill really makes the book read like a movie. Each chapter rolls like a movie sequence. He zooms his camera at some characters, their stories, and then zooms out, and re-introduces them again later. Every character is presented to show the progression of the rise and downfall of Theranos. The book also reads like an urgent detective work. The sense of urgency is seeping throughout the book. Sometimes, it feels like one is watching a thriller movie.

As a sociologist, I must say that the book is very sociological. The author paints a  complex social network around Holmes, and how it influences Holmes’s decision making process. Theranos’s downfall is a social failure, not necessarily just the failure of a female startup founder. Carreyrou argues that it’s the fake-it-till-you-make it culture in Silicon Valley that contributed to this failure. Theranos was engaging in practices what other tech giants was doing with their products. For example, Apple, MS, and Oracle were accused of “vaporware,” a term to describe:

A new computer software or hardware that was announced with great fanfare only to take years to materialize, if it did at all. It was a reflection of the computer industry’s tendency to play it fast and loose when it came to marketing… Such over promising became a defining feature of Silicon Valley. The harm done to consumers was minor, measured in frustration and deflated expectations (p.296).

Holmes was just following the footsteps of those who she admired:

By positioning Theranos as a tech company in the heart of the Valley, Holmes channeled this fake-it-until-you-make-it culture, and she went to extreme lengths to hide the fakery  (p. 296).

However, she’s wrong. She’s working in the intersection between the tech industry, and the healthcare industry, where no “vaporware” is tolerated because it messes with human life. Computers and human beings are not the same. Legislation is still trying to catch up with computers, but human kind has had thousands of years dealing with illnesses. Life is invaluable, not disposable like an Apple computer.

When I first read Chapter 19: The Tip,  I thought well it looked like an Appendix in a sociological monograph, the end was coming. However, I was wrong. Instead, the chapter was the plot twist. And the I-character entered the story out. Carreyrou started narrating how he became involved in the project to bring down the unicorn. From then the story shifted to how the WSJ  published important investigative articles that showed the truth. This in effect alarmed regulators. They made regulators aware of all the wrongdoings that Theranos.  This is where the hero, the protagonist of the book was introduced.

While the book does a great job at telling the story of Theranos, and how journalists can work with regulators, and public policy makers to bring to light harmful practices, its main focus on Theranos, Elizabeth Holmes leaves many questions unanswered. For one, what is the fate of various early skeptics of Theranos? For example, the Fuisz’s, who was sued by Theranos early on because of a patent. Theranos really destroyed their family wealth in an expensive  legal battle. John Fuisz left his law firm because of reputational damage caused by Elizabeth Holmes’s accusations. Carreyrou seems to leave them out of the picture all together when his mission is accomplished: to reveal Holmes’s ruthless character.  It seems that the author deploys lawyer’s practice: to discredit the character of the defendant by showing the court how she has been treating people really badly all along.Yet, what others think, feel after Theranos was liquidated is not at all discussed. The battle is won. There’s no point of following up with other witnesses.

Dropping characters aside, why did Theranos failed? It’s the delusion and bad practices of Theranos, the author asserts:

Hyping your product to get funding while concealing your true progress and hoping that reality will eventually catch up to the hype continues to be tolerated in the tech industry. But it’s crucial to bear in mind that Theranos wasn’t a tech company in the traditional sense. It was first and foremost a health-care company. Its product wasn’t software but a medical device that analyzed people’s blood. As Holmes herself liked to point out in media interviews and public appearances at the height of her fame, doctors base 70 percent of their treatment decisions on lab results. They rely on lab equipment to work as advertised. Otherwise, patient health is jeopardized (p.297).

However, is this failure solely Holme’s responsibility? As a sociologist I see it to be the problem of the tech industry when it tries to disrupt a more established industry: healthcare, where a patent’s life is at risk. This is a more systematic failure of the Silicon culture, and business practices.  The line between faking it and lying about it is oftentimes blurred. All companies exploit legal loopholes to disrupt various industries. Holmes lived within the Silicon Valley universe, and had exercise her agency as what she was supposed to do. She was just following the herd, but she picked the wrong battle. The healthcare industry is not the same as the taxi industry or mass media.  One can lie about a hardware that has not existed, but one cannot lie about how a technology will not harm a patient.

My take-away after reading the book is that running a startup or any business is like running a marathon, not a sprint. One cannot force the race to be faster. It is a long training process where prior preparation is required to ensure a successful race. Another insight that I learned is that the quest to accelerate automation could bring potential harmful effects. Of course, automation can help with production, and various aspects of life. In healthcare, one must admit that human workers, particularly doctors, and lab technicians are magically accurate because their long-time training. They have hunches, and intuition which a machine does not have. Yes, humans make mistakes, but they also work wonder.

 

Ramen No More: Vanishing Authenticity

If authenticity is a state of mind, it’s historic, local and cool. But if authenticity is a social right, it’s also poor, ethnic and democratic.

Naked City, Sharon Zukin

Last week, I went to a friend’s birthday party in East Village. The area has become so cool that I would find myself there once or twice in a month hanging out with old and new friends. My favorite places there are the old-school punk bars where one can find a variety of beer, gritty interior decorations, which are sometimes borderline unhygienic, lots of punk music. Most importantly they offer an assortment of alcoholic drinks which are still affordable for my graduate student budget. I rarely see any fancy cocktail names such as the Vesper Martini or Hemingway Daiquiri. They just serve beer, cider, whiskey, gin and an assortment of vodkas. That is, the choices are simple. I rarely have to try to appear sophisticated, but feel down-to earth, and relaxed. The interactions with bartenders are posted as some cultural tests that I need pass in order to blend in as a cultural cosmopolite. I only need to order a Goose Island beer, and voila I’m a part of the scene.

To me and my friends, East Village is cool because all restaurants that we frequent, and bars that are affordable, and theaters that are offering off-broad-way plays are there. Sometimes we would give improvisational comedies at the UCB theater a try. Most important to us is the ambiance. There are always young people on street in East Village. It doesn’t matter what time of the day it is or what day of the week it is. It is always festive. It is not too posh, and not too touristy. It is youthful, affordable. The landscape is dotted with art galleries and boutiques here and there. It has everything that one needs, and the adjacent neighborhoods including Greenwich Village, Soho, and Chinatown are within walking distance. Hence, for me and my friends, we have found ourselves end up in East Village more often than we would have planned.

Last week, after the birthday party there, I had a minor sociological struggle to understand the lived experience of gentrification and authenticity. We celebrated my friend’s birthday at a nice bar, whose policy allowed us to bring our own food. A small group of us started looking for some delicious ramen to calm our hunger at around 7PM. The weather was crisp, yet a bit chilly. It was the kind of an early winter night that was perfect to savor a bowl of soup. As any Millennial who’s constantly checking their smartphone for emails, and social media messages, we relied on Google Reviews to locate a ramen place. Google Reviews led us to an upscale place that sold only Ramen. The place was rated 4.8 out of 5 on Google Reviews. It was an open-space restaurant with tall windows, high ceiling, and tall – standing wooden tables. The first thing we saw after entering the main entrance was that a group in front of us were ordering their ramen at a touch-able screen. Next to us was a billboard showcasing different kinds of ramen being offered. It was an utterly modern restaurant, which utilized way more automation than we were used to.

Having seen our confused faces, an amicable waiter approached us, and gave us some instruction about how to proceed at the restaurant. First, we should choose our food at the two touch-screen stations, then after the orders were placed in the system, and paid for, he would bring us to the available seats. We followed the instruction, approached the touch-screens, and studied the available options. The process was similar to how one could customize a burrito or a burger, but the product this time is a bowl of ramen noodle. Everything could be compartmentalized. One could add an extra egg, seaweed, tofu, vegetables, and cheese on one’s ramen. The dishes looked very artistic on the screen, yet sterilized. There’s no gritty, rugged feeling to any option. At that very moment, my only urge was to get out.  When the ordering became Fordist, and automated, where every ingredient could be taken apart, the whole could no longer be the same. A bowl of ramen was not equivalent to a burger. Making ramen is no rocket science. It is relatively simple. However, it is at the end of the day, an art. It involves fresh ingredients, which could not be seen, smelled, and felt from a picture on a touch screen.

Given that ramen is a fast-food, it is bound to be wept the process of McDonaldization of the modern world. The McDonaldization thesis suggests that our modern world is subject to increasing rationalization in every aspect of life. Everything is organized around the four principles: efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control. I agree that one expects to see these qualities in production of more things in this world. But can God be mercy, and leave my ramen alone? When it comes to food, especially ethnic food, I am longing for some sprinkles of love, authenticity, and the history of a place where it came from.

Having recently watched the documentary Ramen Heads, I learned that ramen was created during a difficult time of in Japanese history and economy.  It was essentially a poor man’s food, and indeed fast-food for the Japanese now. It is made with ingredients found in the island nation including wheat noodles, fish, seaweed, miso, etc. That is to say, the “poor” and “democratic” history of ramen makes it so appealing. Once the dish is modernized, all the “gritty” flavor is gone. Its broth is no longer made of tiny little fish, it is replaced with beef stock or chicken stock in America. The hearty feeling is lost forever.

The moment when we all realized that we could take apart every ingredient in our  bowl of ramen, we decided to leave the restaurant. Of course, knowing what is on your food is important, but making everything completely transparent leads to a boring dish that could be reproduce-able everywhere. My hearty little bowl of soup is no longer special. It’s as sterilized as a McDonalds burger. I walked out of the store thinking to myself why on earth was the restaurant rated so high on Google Maps? Why consumers would silly consume the in-authenticity of this place then rank it so highly? What criteria did they use to rank this place? I didn’t come to any conclusion specifically to the consumers, but one thing I was sure about was that Google Reviews were unreliable.

When it comes to ethnic foods, Google’s crowd-sourcing machinery is the most unreliable thing to count on. Why? Because there are no parameters in determining what a good restaurant is. Maybe customers at that restaurant only rank its modern aesthetics. They rank their efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control, but authenticity is never mentioned because they themselves do not know what a bowl of authentic ramen is. They just want ramen. They don’t want authentic Japanese ramen. They want to consume ethnic food, but not the little fish powder in the broth. When one has to do an ingredient analysis for an authentic bowl of ramen, customers would see ingredients like fish powder, fish paste, and a lengthy list of complicated and sometimes coded as “disgusting” condiments. The cook might easily lose his patience, and appreciation to the mainstream guests.

Instead of looking for another ramen noodle place because I had lost my trust in Google Reviews, we just walked across the street, and entered a Japanese-looking restaurant. This one was not at all modern-looking. It was covered with wooden decoration outside. One could not see inside what other customers were having. Privacy was maintained. Pedestrians could not window-shop the experience of those who were actually eating inside. We had to enter the restaurant to see how it was organized, what kind of tables they had. It had such an authentic, yet old-schooled feeling to me: there were small chairs for single restaurant goers to enjoy their single meals; there were a few big tables for groups who preferred to eat at a table. There were also small, low wooden tables, where customers sat on Tatami mattress and consume the Japanese style. The physical organization of the restaurant was completely opposite to the other one. Instead of making it an open space that embraced the ideals of space, air, light and clean design, this restaurant embraced diversity, and tried to accommodate all kind of customers. Restaurant goers chose where to sit, and how to eat their food. I felt like a queen at this location.

Then we proceeded to order our food. The menu was extensive with different kinds of tempuras, Udon noodles, don buri, bento boxes, various appetizer and sake options. However, one column in the menu was blackened out with duct tape. We were curious, and tried to lift the upper corner of the duct tape to see what’s underneath. It was the ramen column that was completely wiped out. We asked the waiter to confirm if they still offered ramen since we’re craving some ramen. He said that they completely dropped ramen out from their menu because there were too many ramen places nearby. They simply could not compete. Therefore, we ordered something else instead of insisting on getting something that was not on the menu.

However, we encountered an authenticity paradox: it’s too authentic. One of us was a vegetarian, and he refused to eat any fish products. Since Japan is an island nation, the most abundant thing that it has is fish. Fish finds itself in almost every Japanese dish. Fish is as essential to the Japanese cuisine as butter to the French. My friend ended up getting some vegetarian tempura which was the only vegetarian option available. While I was having a grand time with a bowl of authentic beef udon noddle, my friend was unhappy with the lack of options. Authenticity is exclusive. It could not accommodate everyone. What I was yearning for was what my friend hated about Japanese food: exclusivity.

While gentrification drives authenticity away, it brings in diversity and flexibility. While feeling guilty having made my friend unhappy about his food options, I asked myself whether a diverse place can offer a new kind of authenticity. Are gentrification and authenticity always antitheses?

Book Review: Under the Cover by Clayton Childress

Recently I have read many more novels than academic books. This is such a pleasant break away from academic jargon. At times I dream of writing a work of fiction myself. While reading for pleasure, I ask myself constantly questions like what does it mean by telling a story from a teenager’s point of view? How can one create a multi-voice novel? What is the role of the story line? How does a writer decide where the plot twist is? In essence, my curiosity is on the work of a writer, and how she produces a work of fiction. However, a work of fiction is a creative work, and it operates within the creative economy, and is subject to an inverted logic of this field. As an economic field, it is a winner-take-all market, where a small number of novelists enjoy all the fame and financial success while the majority of writers couldn’t make ends meet. How is a work of fiction created, gets produced, and read? became the central question. I also know that Sociologist Clayton Childress has just published a book which answers precisely that question. Therefore, I gave his book a read, and was pleasantly surprised by the details of novel creation, production and reception that the book provides.

The book is Under the Cover: The Creation, Production, and Reception of a Novel. It conceptualizes that a work of fiction undergoes through three different fields which are interlinked but relatively separate: creation, production and reception. Using the Bourdieusian concept “field,” he skillfully shows how a novel moves from one field to another, being formed and shaped by different social groups, who mostly revolved around the writer, and her creative child. The figure 1.2 on page 10 captures succinctly how the book unfolds:

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The figure suggests that the book would illustrate what each field is about, then the relationship between each field, and then the final chapter ties it altogether: how do all these fields interact with one another. Theoretically speaking the organization of the book already suggested that Childress would use Bourdieu’s theory of field, and Viviana Zelizer’s concepts “circuit of commerce” and “good matches” to explain how a creative product such as a novel operates in a commercial market like the expanding market for novels in the United States. Childress is not the first sociologist who has combined both frameworks. Sociologist Ashley Mears has similarly used the combination of the two frameworks to explain how “look” is created in the modeling world in the book Pricing Beauty. Or Juliet Schor and colleagues (2016) also augmented Bourdieu’s social capital theory, with relational economic sociology to study inequality, and how it is reproduced within the sharing economy.

In a sense, Under the Cover is using the right theoretical framework to study a social phenomenon in the art world. Yet, the level of details in each step that a novel has to go through that Childress provides is impressive. He documents both the logic and emotions that each party involved has to carry with them during the process when the novel is rejected, reworked, or accepted. He is very thorough in capturing insights from different players: from the novelist, to her literary agent, to the editor, to the audience. While a novel is about centrality of the voice (that is, how the story is told from one person’s point of view, or from a few people’s points of view), a book of sociology is about the multitude of voices. While not giving any one person’s voice the most weight, Childress draws the audience attention entirely to the phenomenon under scrutiny. In this book, a novel is the social phenomenon, and all social actors involved in making it an artifact in the world can contribute their voice equally.

The book shows that it takes a lot of time and effort to produce a novel. It is a multi-year project for a typical writer. After having read the book, would I still want to write a novel, and try to get it published? Maybe! I am praying that the writing God blesses me every day so I can become a prolific writer in both sociology and creative writing.