Visualizing the Sociological Field

By Sharon Cornelissen and Joel Mittleman

All sociologists amongst us have probably faced this question at some point of their life, whether it is at a holiday dinner amongst family, on a first date with a non-academic (?!) or when striking up a casual conversation with a stranger: “So.. what is Sociology? What do sociologists actually study?” 

While I have occasionally stumbled my way through these questions unprepared, with incomprehensible inventions such as ‘the psychology of society’ or ‘the anthropology of the United States,’ Joel Mittleman, a classmate of mine – anticipating the same question in his SOC101 discussion session – came up with a more creative answer.

He word clouded the entire American Sociological Association 2014 Conference Program.

Joel, ASA word cloud

I think it is quite interesting and informative. For instance, the concepts of gender and race feature more prominently in the program than ‘class’ (if you check out Google NFrequency here you can see the steady decline in the use of ‘class’ since the early 1970s up to 2008 – it remains open whether we would observe a temporary increase again in recent years since 2008 due to the great Recession).  Even more interesting, of course, would be to see the changes over time; What would a word cloud of the ASA program in the 1950s have looked like? Or in the 1970s?

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Brain on a Stick? The Personal and Political in Academia

By Sharon Cornelissen

Now the pressing deadlines of the semester are over, it is time to reflect and make up the balance. Aside from being an ideal time for personal reflection, it is also a good moment look back at the public debates about higher education this year. These debates, which mostly took place online, centered on two topics that particularly caught my attention: the question about the disappearance of the public intellectual (with the related issue of the public relevance of social science – particularly urgent after the federal decision to cut 22% of NSF funding devoted to social science research), and the issue of the pervading stigma connected to mental health in higher education. While these debates took place next to each other, to me they point at an enduring tension in academia – the ivory tower complex with its ideal of the ‘objective scientist.’

brain on a stick

To what extent should we wish to keep viewing academia as insular from real world intrusions and concerns?
What is the relation between the pursuit of objectivity in science and subjective concerns (both private and public)? 

These questions hark back to Weber’s infamous twin essays Science as a Vocation and Politics as a Vocation, and Bourdieu’s somewhat cynical description of the academic field, which describes academics caught up in internal battles for power. I wondered what I could contribute to this debate.

Fieldworkers have perhaps most acutely confronted questions on the relation between objectivity and the personal and public. Within the ethnographic literature, it has long been recognized that fieldwork is highly personal, and that it is not just impossible but perhaps even undesirable to draw the boundaries between academic questions and personal involvement. The objective and subjective realm are not heterogeneous realms, essentially different, with subjective concerns constantly threatening to invade objectivity (i.e. Durkheim 2008 [1912]).

Rather, ethnography teaches us that great scientific work can often be highly personal at the same time. No ethnography is conceived of and written based on a perspective from nowhere. For example, while coincidence and contingency seem to play a large role in the selection of field sites, ethnographers often also indicate that they felt drawn to a field site by personal affinities. Elijah Anderson, for instance, said that his first ethnography, A Place on the Corner, allowed him to hang out and form adult relationships with men not unlike those whom his father associated with. His scientific project to understand the black men who hang out at Jelly’s Corner, a corner tavern and liquor store, was highly personal and allowed him reflect on his own background.

Rather than barriers to scientific knowledge, ethnographers can mobilize their personal characteristics and political outlook to better understand their subjects. Hence, rather than purifying science, ethnographies rely on reflexivity both on part of the fieldworker, and the readers who are presented with an honest account of the data collection, personal characteristics of the researcher, and the findings. Hence, ethnographic knowledge production relies on, rather than expurgates, the personal and political.

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Based on reading a draft of this blog, Winston Chou (a fellow graduate student), constructed the typology above. All colored boxes are part of the academic field proper, exemplified in the purple box ideal of the ‘objective scientist.’ The activist  (who expresses subjective concerns in the public realm) is seen as outside the field. While the public intellectual threatens to contaminate the ideal of the objective scientist by bringing in public elements, the issue of mental health should be placed in the box of the private scholar, who contaminates science by bringing in subjective, personal elements.

Consequently, the decline of the public intellectual and the mental health stigma in academia both flow from the ideal of a purified academic field, haunted by the image of the objective scientist. Both are inspired by incomplete attention to the total persons that we all are – rich in both the public and private concerns that inspired us to turn to science in the first place.

 

How to make the most out of your visit days

By Sharon Cornelissen and Samantha Jaroszewski

This past fall and winter must have been a nerve-racking grad school application season for many of you. As first year PhD students, we still vividly remember those anxious days and weeks awaiting graduate school decision emails, compulsively checking gradcafe. Congrats to all of you who have been accepted to one or more programs! Now that decisions have been sent out, it is your turn to decide.

One year out from making our own visits and decisions, we have reflected on the experience and compiled some advice for prospective graduate students to make the most of their visiting days.

thinking woman deciding

General advice

  • Narrow down your options. If you have more than one acceptance, remember that the visit days can be really draining personally, and also are an investment in you by the university. Often they pay for your trip, a current student hosts you and professors take time to get to know you. If you’ve already mentally ruled out an option, consider declining the offer to visit. Perhaps it will also free up a spot for a waitlisted student to go on the official visit.
  • Stay for a couple of days rather than hopping from campus to campus. This gives you an opportunity to ‘feel out’ not just the departmental culture, but also go explore the town or city and housing situation. After all, you are not just choosing a school but also the place where you are going to live for the next 5 or more years. Why not take that extra day to explore the town beyond the university?

  • Get to know your fellow admitted students. Not only may these people be in your future cohort, but also if they end up at other schools they may be good contacts to have. Wouldn’t it be awesome to have a place to stay in Chicago or Seattle for a future conference?

  • Keep notes about your visit day experiences. Jot down first impressions, pros and cons, etc. It may be more clear in your mind now than in a month when you have to make your final decision.

  • Be nice to everyone. You never know when you will meet them again, so handle all interactions — including declining offers of admission — respectfully. It may be prudent to email the potential advisor yourself before declining the offer formally, thanking him or her for the time and hospitality.

Questions to ask of current graduate students:
Pay particular attention to the other graduate students — admitted and current students. Your colleagues are the ones that you’ll learn the most from and who will support you in the most difficult moments – trust us, those moments will come. How collegial are they? Is there a more friendly or more competitive atmosphere?

  • Are you happy here? Do you feel students around you are happy?

  • What made you decide to come to this school rather than other schools? How do you feel your expectations have held up?

  • What dissertation projects are current graduate students working on? (Are their projects inspiring and interesting to you?)

  • What are the weaknesses of this department? What would you like to see done differently?

  • How are faculty-student interactions? What type of advising structure is common in the department? Examples of advising structures include hands-off, workshop model with larger cohorts or apprenticeship one-to-one relationship with a main advisor.

  • How much time does it take to fulfill the teaching requirements? Are there other service requirements? How long on average does it take for people to graduate?

  • Do students get offices? Often, visiting days are a time when everyone coalesces in the office, so this can give a misleading impression. Ask about how much time people spend in the office on the norm — are people around?

  • What standard of living does your stipend afford? Can you afford an apartment, studio, close to school, do you need roommates? How is the housing situation? Do you need to take out loans? Is there 6th or 7th year funding available? Do you get reimbursed for conference travel?

  • What is the social life like in this town and/ or with fellow graduate students?

Questions to ask of faculty you want to work with
Often schools schedule individual meetings for you with professors. Prepare ahead of time. What are you going to ask them? An informal sample among our cohort yielded unequivocal conclusions: most meetings are going to be awkward. Knowing what to ask will not only give you better information, but also allows you to evade some of the endemic awkwardness of academia…

  • What projects are you working on? Where do you see your research agenda going in the next few years?

  • How many students are you working with? What are some examples of the topics of dissertations that you are currently supervising?

  • Do you work on projects together with your students, for instance co-authored papers?

  • How would you characterize your advising style? How often do you meet with your students?

  • What kinds of jobs have graduates from this department in the last couple of years been able to secure? What kinds of jobs have your students been offered in recent years?

Final advice: Stop asking everyone for advice. What school fits you well – your interests, ambitions, finances, happiness, family life? How do you want to live your life for the next five or more years? Balancing all these factors is very personal and no one knows as much about your situation as you do. Don’t worry too much about making the “right choice.” There may be many places where you could be productive and happy.

Becoming an academic: on hummus and crudites

“I’m trying to figure out what food to get for the party tonight. A few people suggested hummus and vegetables but I feel like that’s all grad students ever eat.”

“Yeah, I actually just had some hummus for lunch”

“…so did I.”

Why do we eat so much hummus? One of the most salient things I learned in my first semester of graduate school was, precisely, how to look like a graduate student — being socialized into a discipline that we enthusiastically claim as our vocation. At orientation, I remember admiring wide-eyed the poise of the more senior students, their penetrating questions, and their concise summaries of their research projects. It felt like they were on display, and I was window shopping for my future demeanor.

This is why we go to job talks. Of course, it is an exciting opportunity to become familiar with the research of our colleagues and of other graduate students or faculty in our discipline and others and offer feedback. But beyond that, we learn how to perform sociology. That includes demeanor and comportment, but also audience interaction: how to ask good questions, and how to answer them. In this informal way, I’ve developed a running list of successful practices and also what not to do; I’ve ruled out possibilities for what “good sociology” looks like and narrowed down the approaches I consider appropriate moving forward. In fact, I recently transferred this running list from a mental note into paper form that I keep in my desk!

  • When an audience member asks you a multi-point question, make notes of the question and answer it in order.
  • So… don’t forget to bring a pen and paper when giving a presentation!
  • Include a road map of the presentation in the first few slides
  • Theoretical framing comes up front! Classical and contemporary theorists if possible!
  • Mixed methods > single method

In our daily encounters with faculty — at the coffee pot, in the mail room, or in our excruciatingly long hallway (a breeding ground for awkward encounters) — we learn to see our academic idols not as daunting figures behind closed doors but as friendly colleagues, insightful and brilliant though they are. We learn how they carry themselves but also develop confidence in our own interactions with the leaders in our fields.

Similarly, in our contact with our more senior graduate colleagues, we are inducted into the academic life — but more specifically, the life of our department. We learn about the prestige of the different journals — tacit knowledge that is invisible to the casual observer. We also learn how to dress the part: we see the degree to which casual attire is acceptable in the office, the more looks they adopt when precepting a class, and how nicely they clean up for a presentation or interview. In a recent seminar with the politics graduate students, I was really struck by how differently the sociologists and the political scientists in the room dressed. It drew my attention to the culture of our department, and perhaps our discipline more broadly: while we are serious and professional,  we’re not overly formalistic.

While I’ve spent hours reading classical theory and learning statistical programming, I’ve spent even more hours chatting with my office-mates, sitting in a writing group with my cohort, and taking notes at job talks; I’ve gone to more wine-and-cheese receptions than I could count and volunteered to show a visiting lecturer around. All of these experiences have shaped how I think, act, and understand what it means to be an academic.

This is — I hypothesize — why we eat so much hummus. If I were planning a party for undergrads, the obvious choice would have been to order pizza for the group. As an undergrad, I ate a lot of free pizza. As a graduate student, I eat a lot of free hummus and crudites. However, as sociologists, we are also being socialized into more professorial preferences. While pizza is still Mediterranean food, it doesn’t quite signal “I’ve spent a lot of time in graduate school” like a strong taste for wine and antipasto.