Fitting in or finding a way out?

Several weeks ago I traveled with a group of undergraduate students to a public lecture by ASA President Paula England on “relationships and sex among young Americans,” a talk based on the kind of work she has showcased on the Contexts website with her “Sexuality and Inequality Research” series. Her presentation’s thesis, which created quite a stir among those present, was that college-aged women of lower socioeconomic status exhibit less “efficacy” in their everyday lives than their peers of higher socioeconomic status. This relative lack of “ability to align their behavior with their goals,” she argued, best explains the former group’s higher rates of unplanned non-marital childbirths. Citing examples from recent qualitative research she had conducted, England implied irresponsibility on the part of poor people, correlating their procrastination in studying at the last minute for school exams with their negligence in setting up medical appointments for obtaining birth control.

When I asked England during Q&A about her personal motivations for this work as well as any concerns she might have about the political implications of these findings, she confessed that the project was inspired by the desire to make a larger disciplinary point. Specifically, England stated that she hopes sociologists will be more open to “culturalist” explanations for individual behaviors rather than remaining wedded to the “political correctness” of structuralism. Thus, like Orlando Patterson, whose scholarship on “the cultural dimensions of black poverty” was profiled in a recent issue of The New Yorker, England wants to call attention to the ways that those who are socially disadvantaged perpetuate their own marginality, without having to face the charge that she is “blaming the victim.”

I am troubled by England’s framing of an important disciplinary debate on the causes and conditions of social inequality. Despite the fact that my scholarship and pedagogy focus on how larger social forces condition culture and individual behavior, I have never imagined my work to be “politically correct.” As my experiences in activism and teaching have demonstrated, the “PC” label is used almost exclusively to dismiss one side of an argument and in turn make the other side appear more honest and progressive. In short, describing something as “politically correct” seems more a polemical shot than a serious assessment of epistemological validity.

I would like to reframe this debate using a key term from England’s own work: what if the difference between the two sides England identifies is actually about political “efficacy” rather than political “correctness”? If the common goal here is the elimination (or at the very least, significant reduction) of social problems like classism, racism, and sexism, which scholarly behaviors are more closely aligned with the achievement of this goal: lecturing those living on society’s margins about their supposedly self-defeating lifestyles or leveraging academic privilege to speak truth to power? Is it more “efficacious” to teach the young women in England’s study better organization skills and study habits or to experiment with new family, school, and workplace arrangements that transcend the zero-sum status quo they live in? Forget the question of whether one is “blaming the victim”: are we better served by helping the victim assimilate to a victimizing society or by making such victimization impossible in the first place?

By asking such (admittedly rhetorical) questions, I am aware that some, or maybe most, will argue that pragmatic realism trumps the bravado of an otherwise utopian version of sociology. Indeed, as Patterson himself wrote, “cultural values, norms, beliefs, and habitual practices may be easier to change than structural ones.” However, like England, I must confess a larger point I’m trying to make: echoing a theme from another recent Contexts guest post, I am increasingly concerned by what I see as attempts to make the discipline more palatable politically (or even worse, economically). England’s work lends itself nicely to Washington think-tanks, and the name recognition of sociology increases with every New Yorker profile of “culturalists” like Patterson and Howard Becker, but at what cost to the revolutionary dreams of more radically-minded sociologists? Could it be that the supposed culturalist turn taking place in sociology right now is really just an attempt to make the discipline more acceptable to the powers that be?

Ultimately the question of political efficacy is one that I struggle with every day as I face students who ask me what a degree in sociology (or better yet, a minor in cultural studies!) will offer them post-graduation. And while I am acutely aware of, and highly sympathetic to, these students’ untenable predicaments of growing loan debt amidst shrinking job opportunities, I am increasingly uncomfortable with the notion that I should be equipping them with the “cultural values, norms, beliefs, and habitual practices” to successfully fit in with the current political economy. Instead, I want to offer them the opportunity to mobilize for comprehensive social change, no matter how “irresponsible” such a vision might seem. Behaving badly might be the most efficacious intervention our discipline can make right now.

David L. Reznik is in the sociology department, and advisor of the cultural studies minor, at Bridgewater College.

Comments 1

Stephanie Breen

May 31, 2015

Dr. Reznik,
This article is great. It points out internal conflicts within the discipline that are under the pressure of external forces. I agree with you that we cannot lose focus of the way in which external forces shape marginalization. We need to eliminate victimization in the first place rather than focus on individual failings. Even if these people England talks about really do perpetuate their own marginalization, what is is that marginalizes them in the first place?
This article has personal relevance for me since I am a cultural studies minor! When I chose to pursue this minor, the last thing on my mind was efficacy. I chose it because I have a passion for people and for social justice. I wanted to learn about our society and it's structures and think critically about how we might work to make it better. To align sociology with our current political economy would undermine the purpose of the entire discipline. While perhaps a change to our cultural beliefs might not easily lead to structural change, we cannot actually make viable changes until we get the public's attention and drive home the realization that our society has structural issues. Sometimes it takes truly radical and visionary ideas to actually snap people out of the monotony of their daily lives and help them to recognize the problems of the reality they are living in. Aligning the discipline of sociology with the structure of our current political economy would be like trying to dismantle and reconstruct bridge while you are standing right in the middle of it. You will not succeed in your purpose.

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