Why Reading Novels?

Every April, Agnes Scott College, my alma mater, organizes its famous annual writer festival. I got introduced to it my first year, took a creative writing workshop in my second year. Danzy Senna, a mixed race novelist, whose main themes deal with growing up as a mixed race person in American race-conscious society, showed me how one can write to provoke sensory experiences, regardless of whether those experiences are relatable to an English speaking audience. She urged me to include foreign languages: Vietnamese, Khmer. “Transport your audience to another world,” suggested Danzy. I benefited from Agnes Scott’s tradition of bringing great writers in to show students how to be a good writer. But it seemed no Asian writer was ever invited to give a workshop on writing. That changed in my last two months of college.

In early April, 2013, Gish Jen, gave a powerful public lecture on how she became a writer by dropping out of a business school. Additionally, there must be someone to break the stereotype that Asians do not become writers because writers dont earn money. Pursuing your passion was essentially the message.

During her speech, Gish Jen told us where her inspirations come from. Particularly, how to organize ideas, and develop a story out of an idea. The method is to keep a binder of words, phrases, sometimes quotes, and sayings. Then at a later date, sift through them, pick one good idea, and develop a story from that word. We’re all wordsmiths.

The image that stuck with me particularly was her description of tall ancient pine trees at Confucius Temple in Qufu, China. A month after her speech, I bought a one way ticket to China, and spent the summer there. Without any real meaningful connection to China.  I did have a few Chinese friends in college. One of my cousin studied abroad in Chengdu, Sichuan. Yet I knew not much about the place, nor I knew any Chinese word then. It was a bold decision. Two months later, volunteering at the Confucius Temple Complex, standing in front of rows of “ancient pine trees,” I felt accomplished. The trees were not really ancient and mysterious like those in Avatar.  They were well-kept, had more trunks and barks than leaves. Standing in the temple yard, I tried to absorb all the wisdom of time, air, water, and soil of the place. It felt sacred. “I have arrived,” I mumbled to myself while collecting soda cans thrown on the sidewalks by tourists. This experience showed me how imagination could influence me, it urged me to act, albeit on trivial matter such as traveling to another country. Gish Jen was persuasive in her argument that one ought to experience the place before really trying to describe it in own’s writing. Besides, I can relate to everything she told us that day. She had power of a great novelist. I could relate to her words, to her kinship stories, which spanned both the United States and China. At the end of the summer, I felt happy traveling in China, and seeing it partly through Gish Jen’s eyes, partly through my own curiosity.

The title of the blog post is “why should anyone read novels?” Reading novels is a luxury for many. In the age of “info glut,” few people have enough time to sit down, and read a novel from cover to cover. How many have patience to read Anna Karenina, a tome of almost 1000 pages? Yet “reading novels” is the advice that I constantly got since the first day in graduate school. “If you want to talk like a normal person, read novels instead of academic articles or books,” said one friend. “If you want to write well, learn it from good writers. Academics don’t make good writers,” advised my writing professor.

One suggested me to read works of fiction so I can talk like a normal person rather than like an academic. The other suggested me to read good novels to learn how to write well. There are two problems here. First, why academics get such a bad rap? Their writings are dry, full of jargon, and don’t mean much to lay readers. Second, why reading fictions is worthwhile for anyone who wants to write and read well? I will attempt to answer the second question. The first question will be dealt with in another blog post that focuses on something I call “academic habitus.”

So why reading novels? Because of good sentences, and more importantly  because of images that are embedded in each book. Recently I watched some videos in a Coursera course on creative writing. The teacher explained what makes good writing with a pyramid of elements.

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Any good writing would have all the layers. Occupying the bottom level are meaning, sense, clarity. In other words, sentences must make sense. At the second level, it’s about evoking sensory experiences that everyone has. I would argue that these senses are culturally conditioned. In other words, some senses make more sense to some readers than others. For example, bacon smell would mean a lot to my American friends than to my mother who came of age in a village in North Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Following these raw senses are voice, mood, and connotation. This is where the writer’s personality comes out, and where the reader remembers them as a writer. Then the last three layers deal with subtext, metaphor, and fancy stuff. I would also argue that these parts are culturally dependent, and they are the parts that distinguish ingenious works of fiction from basic good writings.

Almost always, good social science writers operate on the first three levels. They prioritize most on the first level. Sometimes they don’t even make sense. That means they are down on the basement of the pyramid: using esoteric, vague language. Yet if one looks closely enough, one would encounter good writings that cover all three levels. A few examples are Sidewalk by Mitch Duneier, Dealing in Desire by Kimberly Hoang, and Evicted by Matthew Desmond. Most good ethnographies are worth reading. The authors write with novel-quality in mind. However, social scientists almost always stay away from the top three levels of the pyramid. The boundary between the third and fourth level demarcates where a novelist begins, and where just common good writers end. Social scientists stay away from the meaning making project that novelists actively engage in. We want to analyze metaphors instead of creating new metaphors, and new literary associations. The subtext should be out of the door because it invokes speculation, and we’re not in a speculating business.

Now back to Gish Jen. She’s so good at evoking senses by just describing a few old pine trees. Her voice was strong because she made the experience personal: telling all stories from the first person point of view. The subtext? Metaphor? And fancy stuff I wasn’t sure about any of them. Yet I knew for sure that her writing urged me to imagine, and to act upon my imagination. My sensory experiences are evoked enough that I could not sit in Atlanta any more. I wanted to get in touch with my feelings by going to Asia. That’s it. Reading good works of fiction let one be in touch with one’s inner feelings, and emotions. That is why everyone should read them. We have suppress them enough in the modern world in order to be a good student, an efficient worker, and a strict parent. We barely explore what our feelings are. We manage our anger. We refrain from showing our raw feelings lest other people judge. This is why fictions are needed more than ever for both social scientists and lay readers alike. Let our imagination take hold, and be in touch with our emotion via someone else’s writing!

Book Review: Working for Respect

My book of the month goes to Working for Respect: Community and Conflict at Walmart by Adam Reich and Peter Bearman, published by Columbia University.


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Why is it worth a read? 

Because  it’s about Wal-mart, the largest private employer on earth. Worldwide it employs around 2.1 million people. Its workforce is larger than many countries. The book looks at how typical workers experience their job at different Wal-mart’s, how and why they organize or fail to organize. In a lot of ways, it is a typical labor story where the protagonists are low-wage workers whose contribution to the development of the organization is not materialized in their economic gain, i.e. living wage. The antagonist is of course the evil corporation. However, the authors show that most workers do not hate it, and find it to be a good place to work. What is really innovative about this book is its many interesting methods. They range from student-led interviews, ethnographic observation, and even student-led labor movement recruitment, to big data, social network analysis, and also cognitive social science. Using students (mostly undergraduate students) as researchers is not new. Peter Bearman did it before in Doormen, which is also an important read for those who are interested in studying inequality, and labor. Among all of the methods, I find big data, and cognitive social science to be the most interesting. For the former, they use a large amount of texts written by Wal-mart associates to show their attitudes toward their employer. For the latter, using brain scan, they shows how student researchers changed their internal understanding, and feelings about social justice, and social relations before and after their brief time employed as researchers. At the end,  the authors conclude that social ties matter more than social framing when it comes to mobilizing people for social change. In other words, social relationship is more effective in making you stand up for social injustice, than reading/listening about it on a discursive level. Finally, the best thing about the book is that it reads like a summer story. I really appreciate how much the authors try to make it read well, and that one can enjoy the book rather than laboring through it like other academic books. All in all, it is definitely worth a read, particularly for anyone who is interested in labor movement, work, organizations, or social network.

Soziopod: Sociology Podcast from Germany

In the past, I have reviewed two sociology podcasts from the United States and the United Kingdom, namely The Annex Sociology, and Thinking Allowed (Than 2017). Still an avid listener of both channels, I am constantly learning about new ideas and the development in my field on the two sides of the Atlantic. Yet, the previous blog post reveals that my consumption of sociological knowledge is very Anglo-American centric. That is, outside of what is available in the English language, I almost never tried to read sociological knowledge written in another language. While in Berlin, I discussed this issue with a good friend, Herrmann Königs, a sociologist in training at Humboldt University in Berlin. He suggested that I should listen to a sociology podcast in German. It’s called Soziopod. I took a listen, and was pleasantly surprised by its content, the quality of the debates, and the number of episodes available. This blog post summarizes my overall evaluation of the podcast.


One can find more information about the podcast here. According to Wikipedia, it is dedicated to sociological and philosophical topics, and started in 2011. The podcast is unfortunately in German, which means that it is non-accessible to many. Unlike the two podcasts mentioned above, which focus mainly on sociology and other related social sciences, this podcast brings philosophy to the center of all social debates. This element in itself is very refreshing.

The podcast is hosted by Dr. Nils Köbel and Patrick Breitenbach. Dr. Köbel is a trained sociologist of children, youth, and religion, and Patrick Breitenbach is an expert in digital media. They make a good pair of hosts because both of them are invested in various topics. Since one of them is a media expert, he could translate abstract concepts into layman’s language. Many a times, the podcast avoids sociological jargon, which only insiders could understand.  The purpose of the podcast is to make sociological knowledge accessible to everyone. Dr. Köbel stated that they try present the topics in a manner of general understanding to “bring Sociology to the streets, where it belongs.”

A typical episode lasts around one hour. It is structured around a topic such as social inequality, migration, power, right-wing extremism, religion, or the Frankfurt School of social theory. That means, it’s a wealth of knowledge for anybody who is interested in social debates in Germany. Every once in a while, they also air a special episode where the hosts discuss an issue with a body of audience, and interact with them. Sometimes they invite experts to comment on certain topics. That means listeners could directly raise a question to the hosts/moderators, and sometimes debate with the two hosts as well. Since its inception in 2011, the program has produced more than 70 episodes, a few public forums for an audience to interact with the hosts, and they have published one book. This is quite impressive!

After the topic is being introduced, the hosts would define an important concept or concepts. Then they introduce the different social theorists who have written about the topic, and elaborate more on how these theorists are in conversation with one another. More importantly the discussions are situated in the context of contemporary Germany, which makes abstract scholarly debates relatable to daily life experience.

The discussions have a lot of pedagogical values. During the course of one hour, one can learn many important social theory concepts, and could look for appropriate examples to make sense a particular concept.  Each episode contains lots of knowledge about social theory.  The hosts often highlight theoretical concepts which have been invented by German theorists such as Jürgen Harbamas,  Thomas Luhmann,  or Theodor Adorno. I found these discussions fascinating because I have never really read these authors closely, nor used any of their works before. What is even more intriguing is that the hosts would relate sociological concepts to philosophical concepts. In other words, they acknowledge the foundation of sociology: philosophy. When unearthing the genealogy of a particular term, one could trace it back to some philosopher who wrote about similar topics. This is a contrast to my current sociological training in the United States, which as a field has developed into something that has been moved quite far from philosophy, or social theory.

Even though the podcast is a great pedagogical channel, as an American trained student of sociology, I cannot help but point out some of its shortcomings. First, its main topics would be categorized under the umbrellas of social theory or political sociology in American sociology terms. According to the recent sections that are listed on the American Sociological Association’s website, social theory and political sociology are two among its 52 official sections. In other words, the podcast covers a very small fraction of all possible sociological topics that one can study.

Given the nature of its leaning toward social theory, and philosophy,  most discussions stay on the abstract level. The discussions are centered around a topic, relevant sociological concepts, and different possible directions that could be taken to deal with the topic. What is barely discussed is empirical evidence to test whether the theory actually works on the grounds. The general structure of one episode is organized as follows:

  1. Definition of a concept
  2. How to operationalize the concept?
  3. Can one use the concept in a particular context in relation to the given topic?
  4. Who else has talked about the concept and this phenomenon since ancient philosophy?
  5. What else can we learn about the phenomenon?
  6. Is there any unresolved contradiction?

The hosts barely cite new research conducted in contemporary Germany. They often talk about big thinkers, who came up with concepts that could be applied universally. There are almost no discussions about methodology and data, which in my opinion are the strength of sociology. We are a pluralistic bunch of scientists who employ a variety of methods, theories, and data to study the social world. The podcast’s main focuses are concepts, and argumentation. As a student of immigration, work, and the urban, I find the podcast lacking because those fields are by definition not the main focus of the podcast. Because of its emphasis on theory, the podcast is also not paying enough attention to the lived experience of a particular group, which quintessentially showcases how a person inhabits their living environment, and reveals their social world.

When I brought up my observation about the lack of empirical research discussions in the podcast, my friend, Herrmann Königs, commented that this illustrates what is valued and emphasized in sociological research and pedagogy in Germany. In his words: “German sociology emphasizes intellectual history of a concept, and whether the concept could be applied universally.” We then went on to debate the question: Is it necessary to learn about the historical context, through which the concept arose in order to understand a contemporary social phenomenon? We couldn’t come up with a consensus whether it is productive to learn about intellectual history of a concept, or whether it is more productive to learn how to apply it in a contemporary situation. However, our discussion highlights the differences in our training on the two sides of the Atlantic. American sociological training tends to emphasize the empirical; the German, the theoretical.

Due to their training, my German counterparts impress me with their expertise in close reading of original texts, and the logic of their argumentation. However, I find their main interests on formal institutions such as the church, the school, and the state to be limiting. Sociologists can also study sub-cultures such as that of the urban squatters, Punk Rock culture, the Fusion (the equivalent of the Burning Man), the proliferation of Yoga, and the immigrants. All of those marginal groups might one day become mainstream, and by studying these subgroups, sociologists could reveal social transformations.

One could criticize that I am too American-centric, and that I cannot impose an agenda set by my profession on one side of the Atlantic to the other. I agree that I am an American trained sociologist, but I also think that as a profession, scholars on both sides of the Atlantic have much to learn from each other. German sociology provides rigorous theoretical training that I wish American graduate programs could provide. I would like to see students from day one to engage more with theoretical texts, and learn how to do it properly rather than seeing people like myself scared of social theory, and opt to do empirical research from day one. Thus, many a times sociology papers read a-theoretical to me. However, American pragmatism is much to be praised. With this pragmatic orientation in mind, we are looking for mechanism of why something is the case, and using our sociological imagination to reveal it. The two papers that I have read lately that showcase how a mechanism-focused researcher could be done are “When two bodies are (not) a problem” by Lauren Rivera (2017), and “All that is Solid” by David Peterson (2015). They exemplify some of the best contemporary sociological research that American academia has to offer.

Another aspect that I find not satisfactory is that the main (if not only) geographical focus of the podcast is Germany. It doesn’t give any air time other German speaking countries such as Switzerland, Austria, and Lichtenstein. If the social concepts are so universally applicable, why are they not applied in other cultural, sociopolitical contexts? According to Jaeeum Kim(2017), the field of sociology is openly anti-area studies. In other words, American sociologists tend to study American society; Germans study German one. Despite all odds, many sociologists travel across nation-state boundaries to study a particular social phenomenon. A few great books that I have read in the past two years include Jaeeun Kim (2016)’s Contested Embrace, where the author examined immigration from the Korean Peninsula, and their diasporic politics in the 20th century. Another example is Kimberly Hoang (2015)’s Dealing in Desire, which is an excellent ethnography that looks at the co-production of gender and capital in the sex market place in the context of globalizing Vietnam. Two growing subfields of sociological research are China Studies and Asian Studies. The 21st century has been dubbed as the Asian Century. It would be a mistake to not pay any attention to this important geographical area. In other words, only paying attention to social phenomena that occur within the geographical boundary of the German nation is a disadvantage for German sociologists in the context of increasing interdependence and interconnections of different areas of the world.

In conclusion, Sociopod has provided me with a substantial vocabulary to talk with my sociology colleagues on this side of the Atlantic. If you’re comfortable with social theory, political sociology, or pedagogy, you should give it a try. It is packed with bite-size discussions of theoretical knowledge. Its ability to reach a popular audience is aspiring. Bringing sociology to the street is such an inspiring goal, and it ought to be supported. In the context of the increasing emphasis of public sociology, I wish that all academics could use some of the hosts’ techniques to mainstream sociological knowledge to the wider audience. Sociology indeed belongs to the street, and that the knowledge of the profession should not be contained within the walls of the academe.




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Learning to Listen: Acquiring a New Language vs. Doing Sociology with One’s Ears

I have mentioned in various blog posts that Hindi is the language that I am learning this year (Than 2017a, Than 2017b). My current level is A1 according to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. My goal is to move to the next level by the end of April. Before starting my Hindi language learning journey I messaged a couple of polyglot friends, and they sent me materials to self-learn the language. Yet to be honest, I am nowhere at the level where I can teach myself a language that I have had very little contact with. Therefore, looking for a language teacher online was my solution. I found one from Mumbai. Rachna Singh is her name. She is very patient, and positive all the time.  We have had regular lessons for almost two months.

My Hindi learning routine goes as follows: 5 minutes of learning new vocabulary in the morning with the app Drops , then 1 minute of a voice blog. Rachna would sporadically listen to my voice blogs, correct pronunciation, and grammar, where appropriate. During my commute to school,  I would listen to Hindi popular songs, which I have learned that they are often official sound tracks from Bollywood movies. For my listening practice purposes, the lyrics, and the underlying meanings are not yet important to me. Yet sometimes, I can detect familiar sounds, and would sing along, which is quite a bizarre experience especially if I sing aloud on a crowded train. Having seen my speaking and listening skills improve relatively fast, Rachna asked me to read a children’s story in Hindi, which looks like this:Screen Shot 2018-03-30 at 22.25.13

The one-hour reading lesson wrecked my brain because I am completely illiterate in Hindi. I needed to piece together how each letter is pronounced, and how they are spoken when put together. Instead of breezing through an A1-level conversation, I was held back by not being able to articulate the simplest words. It was laborious. It was painful. Being forced to slow down my progress, I was upset. Yet, now having had enough time to reflect on what it means to have any progress at all  in language learning, I realized that slowing down is not a bad thing after all. When one has little knowledge about the subject matter, any step forward counts. Despite the fact that my brain was partially impaired for half a day, I got a challenge to look forward to.

Besides learning languages, I am a full-time sociologist in training. My day job is to read books in social sciences, and sometimes I interview entrepreneurs for a side project.  The project concerns with new entrepreneurs who have only established their businesses in the past 1-2 years. During those interviews, I recognize that the way that I ask my informants questions is not so different from how I ask Rachna during my language lessons. In both situations, I assume the position of not knowing anything about their language or their social world, and ask the most mundane, and obvious questions. There are a lot of clarifying questions. In both situations, I aim to understand the underlying logic: one has to with linguistic logic, while the other has to do with social logic. Sometimes I feel that I must appear really dumb to my interlocutors.

When interviewing a New Yorker, one is often amazed by the various facts about the city that one is absolutely not aware of. It seems that New Yorkers are very cosmopolitan; they are also very parochial. They could tell you where a building is located. Yes buildings here have names! This level of nuance is challenging for me. Before becoming a researcher, I thought one has to be all-knowing in order to be an academic. But now I recognize that one knows very little about this world.

In doing qualitative sociology, there is a debate whether interviewing or doing ethnography is better at studying a social phenomenon. Shamus Khan and Colin Jeromack (2014) argue that interviewing alone is not enough, and that ethnography is superior to get at some truth. The other camp, Michele Lamont and Ann Swindler (2014) maintain that the trick of the trade is to interview people, and that sociologists should embrace “methodological pluralism,” instead of pitting one method against another. As of now, I am a serial interviewer, I have been doing some participant observation. But that is about it. I have not done any serious ethnography because I do not have enough patience to write field notes. One hour of observation could potentially lead to 10 pages of field notes. Then if I observe something for 8 hours a day, I would probably produce up to 50 pages of field notes for that day only. And doing ethnography is often joked as doing “deep hangout.” Erving Goffman(1974) in an address to the American Sociological Association suggested that one should stay in the field for at least a year.  Just think about it. There will be a lot of notes for sure. Writing is exhausting. It is a physical activity, like a sport!!! It’s mental gymnastics. I could barely fathom that I would be able to write up to 5 hours a day. Therefore, I prefer to interview people, and corroborate what they say with other materials that I can get my hands at such as archival materials, newspaper, audios, and videos. In a sense, I fall under Lamont & Swindler’s camp: embracing methodological pluralism, and pragmatism.

In those two camps, my layman’s feeling is that the biggest difference is between observing and listening. Ethnographers are very attentive at what they experience, and what they see, while serial interviewers like me are attentive at what the other person says. I ask follow-up and clarifying questions all the time. I find the answers to those questions to be revealing of how they think about themselves, and how they experience their own social world. Their claims can be exaggerated. Yet how they understand their role in their social world is important for me.

Before going to an interview, I know that I need to follow an interview schedule with a long list of questions. However, during the interview, I am learning the language that the other person is using, and I couldn’t find anything more interesting than listening to the sound of their voice, and entering their lingual world. It is like Alice entering the Wonderland. I am fascinated by the small differences. Sometimes things jump at me. People don’t need to say something radical or extraordinary. I only want to know how one thing is slightly different from another thing. That is enough to keep me engaged for an hour or more. I don’t disagree with them. I just want to them to let me into their wonderland, where the trees might look different from what I thought they should look like.

Gradually, I get addicted to interviewing strangers. Sometimes when I am not supposed to interview anybody, then I would call up one of my former informants and ask how they are doing, and ask to  see if we could get a coffee together so I could catch up with them!

Back to my Hindi lesson, listening has become more of a fun activity, and I enjoy it very much. Yet in order to go to the A2 level, I ought to not only acquire more vocabulary. I think my listening strategy has been working. So I’ll stick to it. My illiteracy problem will be solved slower because it needs more deliberate practices.

Jerolmack, C., & Khan, S. (2014). Talk is cheap: Ethnography and the attitudinal fallacy. Sociological Methods & Research, 43(2), 178-209.

Lamont, M., & Swidler, A. (2014). Methodological pluralism and the possibilities and limits of interviewing. Qualitative Sociology, 37(2), 153-171.







Brownstones in New York


“Generations,” is the front cover of the New Yorker Magazine on October 02, 2017, by Kadir Nelson. The artist was inspired by his time living in New York: “Sitting on the stoop is such a New York thing… Brownstones, stoops, leaves turning: that’s fall in New York, and I was also thinking about all the sweet moments I’ve had with my daughters.” The cover depicts an African American father, and daughter sitting in front of a brownstone house, typical of Harlem and Park Slope in an autumn day. It appears as if they are waiting for a bus to go to school. The child is ready for a new day, while her father is deep in his thought about a day ahead.They are ready for work, school, or for a social fight. One does not know.

Not many New Yorkers actually get to enjoy the scenes of brownstones and stoops. It is a privilege to be able to sit on those stoops, and watch autumn leaves fall. Very few residential areas in New York have those cigar box-like structures. Nelson used to live in the Clinton Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn. The majority of brownstones that I have seen are located in Central Harlem, my current neighborhood. Luckily enough, I get to live in a brownstone, which was renovated in the 1990s.

Erving Goffman once said, when doing fieldwork, “you’ll see more than you’ll ever see again.” That is true for my observation of my neighborhood. When I first moved in very late on a Sunday night, a group of young African American men sitting on the stoop of the house next door, greeted me, their new neighbor. They were curious about whether I am a student, and whether I go to school nearby. The interaction between me and the men could be described as purely civil. They were curious about a young Asian lady who would be their neighbor. I was trying to be nice to them because I hoped that they would play the role of “public characters,” and keep “their eyes on the streets” for me late at night. I was happily engaging in their conversations, and tried to get to know them. I was trying to make my presence known among my housemates, and my neighbors. They seemed to be aware of who was new and who was from the neighborhood.

Originally, I was expecting some hostility that residents of Harlem would display toward newcomers, especially toward someone from a different racial background. However, it has not been the case. My daily interactions with my neighbors, and other residents of Harlem could only be described with one word: “civil.” Every time I need direction, people have been very nice, and they go out of their way to help me. Sometimes people get confused because of my accent; sometimes I get confused because of their accent. Yet for the most part I like my “hood.”

On my daily walk home, I could admire the charm of brownstone houses. Every once in a while, I would listen to jazz music from a close by bar, or to attend a jazz concert at the Schomburg Center. At the end of the day, I was moving into the mecca of African American culture, a place of rich culture and history, and of racial tension. As a researcher, my purest intention is to understand Harlem’s history, and culture.

In fact, my landlord is a jazz musician, whose band would practice, and perform in our backyard. One day, the band practiced in our house in preparation for a gig that weekend. I was lucky enough to came home while they were in section, and just sat on the stoops, and enjoyed their jam. One could never day dream enough with that beautiful sound of Harlem especially in the fall. After an hour, the gentlemen came out to the stoops for a cigarette break, and asked me about my experience teaching at City College. Music, arts, and education could really bring  people together. I wish that I could show how happy they were when they learned that I hope I could play a musical instrument to jam with them.

Next semester, I get to teach a class on Urban Sociology, and I cannot wait to tell my students about brownstone houses in Harlem. Currently I am soliciting books, and articles on brownstone houses. The newest book that I have encountered is Down the Up Staircase by Bruce Haynes and Syma Solovitch, a native of Harlem. The book is about three generations of a Harlem family who lives in Sugar Hill area, where City College is located. Beautifully enough the book actually makes the brownstone house to be one of the main characters. Its deterioration is a reflection of the downward mobility that a middle class African American family experienced during the mid-twentieth century. I was wondering whether my students will be able to figure out which house in the neighborhood is depicted in the book.  Hopefully I will be able to show my students how beautiful Harlem is, and what a privilege they have to be able to study urban sociology right there.

After all, I love my hood!

Sociology Podcasts: Thinking Allowed vs. The Annex Sociology

The first blog entry I wrote is about the increasing listenership of podcasts. Since then I have received many recommendations from friends, and those who read and commented on my post. Among the suggestions, a few stand out to be excellent entertainment, and intellectual channels for my commute. One of them is Imaginary Worlds, which is a podcast about science fictions. It is a delicious show with many bite-size science fiction audibles. Alternatively, I listen to New York standup comedy shows such as Sleepyhead. Another weird one that has to do with insect and the science of Entomophagy is the Ento. It seems that anything you want to listen to, there is a podcast for it. The choices are endless. One faces with the paradox of choice in one’s consumption of audible, which is at the end of the day a quintessential American consumption problem.

The phrase “have a listen” now becomes a part of my daily language, which is in and of itself an interesting development. Sometimes a friend recommends a new show; other times I just follow suggestions on the podcast-sphere.

A few weeks ago, I discovered a podcast which targets sociology nerds. What a great find! It is the Annex Sociology, a podcast solely dedicated to sociology. It is, however, not the first sociology podcast that I ever listened to. I have been a big fan of Thinking Allowed, hosted by Laurie Taylor, a British sociologist. The Annex Sociology, however, is different. It is co-hosted by three sociologists: Joseph Cohen (CUNY Queens College), Leslie Hinkson (Georgetown), and Gabriel Rossman (UCLA). That means it is made on the American soil, and dedicated to American sociology!

This blog post is about good bits and can-be-improved parts that the Annex Sociology has in comparison to its British counterpart. Overall, it is a great podcast for sociology graduate students. I do not recommend it to undergraduate students, or popular audience mainly because of the amount of inside jokes, and jargons that the hosts throw out.

Thinking Allowed

For starters, Thinking Allowed is a British show, a BBC Radio 4 series discussing social science. The earliest episode available online is dated back to November 2007. That means it has been in existence for at least 10 years, and bas been consistently hosted by the sociologist, Laurie Taylor, now a retired professor of sociology. Each episode lasts only 28 minutes. The number of minutes is very strict, and has been kept 28 minutes for the past decade. Within the limited amount of time, Laurie Taylor manages to be very compact, includes various debates, and invites a wide range of speakers in only one episode. Take for example one of my favorite episode: The Subway.  The main guest of the show is William Kornblum, whose new book is about the 7 train in New York. Kornblum basically uses the train as a social lab to study social interactions of different immigrant and ethnic groups. Laurie Taylor invited two other guests including Iain Sinclair, writer and film maker, and Melissa Butcher, a reader in social and cultural sociology. That is to say, in 30 minutes, he is able to entertain listeners with three experts from completely different fields on the topic of the subway as a social laboratory. Sometimes Taylor cut the guest speakers off  when they  try to make a long-winded argument. In other contexts, it might sound rude, but it is totally understandable in a limited air-time show. He uses the phrase “in the interest of time” almost every episode to suggest that the speaker should put their thoughts in a more succinct manner.

By the virtue of being aired from the UK, a lot of research on the UK soil is featured. It is important because sociologists tend to do research where they live. To paraphrase Les Back: sociologists are like social scientists like anthropologists, but we like to study a local bus station rather than a village in Southeast Asia. That means by listening to Thinking Allowed, I get a sense of what a good sociological research from the UK sounds like. At times Taylor would invite German, Italian, French and Russian researchers to share their works. Put differently, his podcast is European in nature. As the example above demonstrated, he also invites American scholars to speak in his show. The kind of transatlantic, transcontinental scholarly exchange in Laurie Taylor’s show is very impressive.

On the artistic and performative side, the show makes one feel that sociology is not a science but a true art form. Whenever an ethnographer is invited to speak, Laurie would skillfully inject an excerpt from the speaker’s newest book. A voice actor/actress would read something that an informant says about his/her social world, or what he/she thinks about certain phenomenon/practice. This form of spoken ethnography transports the listener immediately into that person’s social world, and helps the listener to be able to make sense of the informant’s worldview. This is qualitative sociology at its best: being performed.

All of the artistic, story-telling, and impactful that Thinking Allowed has to provide keeps me a loyal listener for the past 5 years. I discovered it when I was not even aware of what a typical sociologist does. I just listened to it for the sheer amount of interesting information, and knowledge that I learned from the show. The show has a popular appeal. Now let me turn to the younger American podcast, the Annex Sociology, and compares it with its British friend.

The Annex Sociology  

It is a weekly podcast. A new episode is uploaded every Monday. The hosts, Joseph Cohen, Leslie Hinkson, and Gabriel Rossman provide readers with the state of the art updates on what is going on in American Sociology. Each episode is a feast of discussion of theoretical and methodological innovations. Besides, the three hosts are really funny. They make me feel as if I was listening to The Simpson sometimes.

The three hosts, even though are based at different universities across the country have a few things in common. For one, they all got their PhD from Princeton University. For another, they are all quantitative researchers. Yet speakers come from a diverse methodological background including ethnography, interview, etc.

According to Leslie Hickson, “Annex” means something outside, beyond the main premises of a property, so they talk about things that are often not discussed in a classroom context for example. For a sociology enthusiast like me, the content of all episodes is great, especially when all hosts agree that “we should purge STATA out of sociology.” This statement was a brutal attack for my current training because I have not even learned much of STATA skill yet, and already feel like my skills are no longer needed. Why wasting my time acquiring something that will go extinct? It is similar my other debate: why I should get a driver’s license in the era of driverless cars.

In the first few episodes, I was lost most of the times because the hosts use vocabulary that is inherent to quantitative research to make their points cross. Currently focusing on honing my qualitative research skills, I pay very little attention to quantitative research language. In other words, even being trained as a sociologist, I still need some cultural translation to understand various points. Unlike its social science kin disciplines such as anthropology and economics, sociology suffers from methodological tribalism. It is both an advantage and a curse of the field. Within qualitative method, there are at least four different sub-methods: ethnography, interview, media/content analysis, and comparative historical analysis. Certainly the process of sub-tribalization is even more intense in quantitative research. In total, one has a lot to choose from, or one suffers again from “a paradox of choice.”

However, listening to these young and enthusiastic researchers/ professors, who are full of energy, and willing to put their words, opinions out there about the field is exciting. They create a very good space to invite young academics to share their research. That means sociologists are engaging more in public dissemination of knowledge. This is a great improvement.

Furthermore, they are all hilarious, and I could not stop laughing at their various jokes on popular culture. In one episode, Leslie Hickson talks about Taylor Swift and her brand, and how Taylor Swift has outgrown her brand, but she does not know how to make the adjustment. For a person who does not listen to American pop music, and follow tabloid news. Their tuning in to scandals gives me a secondary source to talk with my undergraduate students.

In comparison to Laurie’s Thinking allowed episodes in general the American counterparts are a lot longer generally around 70 minutes. That means it takes me maybe 1.5 days to finish an episode because my commute is in generally less than 30 minutes. When I pick up the episode again, I have already forgotten what was discussed the day before.

There are a lot of methodology discussions more than Laurie’s channel. This is what I see as a strength of American sociology in comparison to its European counterpart. Social scientists in this country constantly come up with methodological innovation. Sociologists borrow techniques from various fields such as biostatistics, computer science, physics to better measure and model social world. This borrowing is a double edge sword because it makes the podcast so much out of reach to the majority of lay people. Even at a graduate level, I still find a discussion of Python and object-oriented R language to be exoteric. Sometimes these discussions increase my professional anxiety. I keep asking myself whether I have been receiving the wrong kind of training, and obsolete training already. I am already becoming a dinosaur before I am even born a baby. What’s the matter with my education? I know it’s not the state-of-the-art kind of research education, but it seems that what I am studying now should have gone extinct long time ago. So instead of enlightening me in terms of providing me vocabulary to articulate some social problems, the podcast re-enforces the existing pressure in academia: there are very few jobs; it’s very competitive now; and one has to publish [peer-reviewed articles].

At the end of the day, the three well-meaning academics bring their professional stress, and spread it to their audience. Whether I should take this stress as something real or not, it is still a question. Whether I should convert my methodological inclination to quantitative or not, it depends on my research question.

One needs to acknowledge that they are doing needed work here by making information more transparent in the field. In comparison to the British one, they probably do not receive any governmental or institutional funding. That means they have been using their “free” time to create public knowledge. The fact that they do not receive funding for their project sadly highlights the neoliberal nature of higher education, and knowledge production in this country.

If they received funding, I am sure that they could shorten the episodes by writing very structured script before airing anything. The episodes would be less in conversational style, but more in structural form. They would be able to invite speakers from outside the US, etc. Being inclusive is a big thing here. Sociologists are very diverse in terms of their theoretical and methodological approach. I am looking forward to more interesting talks, and also more innovation from the Podcast. I hope that the learning curve is not steep, and that these three brilliant sociologists will soon figure out that their production of knowledge can be improved really fast.