First-generation, or “first-gen,” students are the first in their families to go to college. When a first-gen student graduates from college and gets into a graduate program it’s a cause for celebration, but the story doesn’t end there.
Using focus groups conducted with first-gen students in grad school, I gained insight into the challenges these students face on their way to academic success—insights we can use to make sure that these high-potential students thrive.
I reached 4 main findings:
- First-gen students don’t always know how graduate school works. What’s worse, people in the university often make assumptions about what these students know: for example, about how to get financial support, find academic support, or fit into their programs socially and culturally. This often places first-gen students in an awkward position: they must admit that they don’t know these things and face the shame that comes with that admission, or hide their ignorance and constantly feel like they’re lost.
- First-gen students often feel like they’re stuck between worlds: the culture that they come from and the culture of academia, which is new to them. Since they often don’t feel like they fully belong to either world, graduate school can be a lonely experience for them.
- It turns out that the length of time in graduate school influences how first-gen students feel about the experience. Contrary to my initial expectations, the longer first-gen students are in graduate school, the more they may feel like they don’t belong, in contrast to other students whom first-gen students feel “always knew they’d be there.”
- To address these issues, first-gen students build community and support systems among themselves and institutions are often eager to help. Despite their good intentions, institutions are often not equipped to address first-gen graduate student challenges, since there is little research into these issues.
It is my hope that research like this will help close that knowledge gap. This research is also important to me because I’m a first-generation student myself and I experienced much of this firsthand.
I recently completed my own graduate school journey along with thousands of other Bruins. However, the findings in this project raise the possibility that education alone isn’t the great social equalizer it’s so often framed to be. Sure, it’s a start. But there are many hazards along the way that we still need to address and I feel fortunate to have learned the tools of social science research in the MaSS program to understand, address, and contribute to this massive undertaking. After all, the best social science is the kind that brings people together.
Paul Farmer’s Pathologies of Power is an indictment of the ideological manifestations of neoliberalism in civic and economic structures. Farmer introduces the concept of “structural violence” through a series of case studies based on his medical/anthropological work around the world. The case studies take a broad perspective, intersecting bureaucracy, class, and gender to explore the processes that stratify societies and how civil, social, and economic rights are intimately linked. Farmer’s agenda for the book is one of research and action, deploying a human rights approach to solving problems related to public health and the economy and resisting the “averted gaze” away from structural violence that is indicative of the neoliberal era. The book is split in two parts: chapters 1-4 hinge on Farmer’s experiences in Haiti, Chiapas, and Russia and chapters 5-8 elaborate on Farmer’s human rights approach to solving structural violence around the world.
The foreword to chapter 1 serves as a Farmer’s positionality statement, problematizing the theme of “bearing witness” by highlighting Farmer’s partisan, limited observations from a cultural frame that’s committed to “explaining the presence of pain, affliction, and evil.” Chapter 1 starts with a rhetorical question: how does one quantify suffering? Farmer introduces Acephie and Chouchou’s stories as examples of suffering. Both stories align with observed trends; Acephie, like many women in Haiti, dies from a sexually transmitted disease while Chouchou, like many men in Haiti, dies from violence. Farmer argues a neoliberal approach that emphasizes quantifying suffering (for example, measuring suffering by incidences of sexually transmitted diseases or incidences of violence) can instead conflate perceptions of “otherness” with the effects of structural violence. Farmer argues for a “modal” approach to understanding suffering that does not hide that other humans are responsible for its occurrence. Farmer outlines the specifics of Acephie and Chouchou’s stories to explain how their social and economic statuses intersect with the structural violence they experience. Acephie was displaced from a farming community in Haiti by a dam construction, found a job as a domestic worker and was fired for getting pregnant, and later died from AIDS. Chouchou criticized road conditions in a public setting in Haiti, was flagged as a dissenter, and was eventually tortured to death by the military and left for dead in a ditch. Acephie’s poverty, race, and gender intersect with ideologically supported structures in Haiti (for example: neoliberal infrastructure projects like dam building; treatment, expected identities, and contingency of domestic workers; gendered stigmatization and treatment of AIDS patients; and unequal access to medical treatment). Similarly, Chouchou’s poverty, race, and gender intersect with ideologically supported structures in Haiti (for example: neoliberally supported strongman governments; eradication of free speech by intimidation and violence; rationalizing extreme violence as an adequate solution to crime; and a non-existent or ineffective judicial system). Having set his agenda and methods, Farmer continues with examples of similar processes he observed again in Haiti, in Chiapas, and in Russia.
Chapter 5 lays out Farmer’s framework for preferential options for the poor which rely on observation, judgement, and action and are largely shaped by liberation theology. Farmer enacts this framework through the case study of tuberculosis: his observation deconstructs the biological and social approaches for solving tuberculosis problems in the world; his judgement states that the full eradication of a curable disease that predominantly affects the poor is a worthy and logical goal; and his action is a community centric approach to tuberculosis treatment in Haiti that removes the structural barriers to compliance and thus addresses both the medical and the social factors that contribute to the disease’s hardiness. Farmer then criticizes charity and development approaches to solving world problems alluding to Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Chapters 6-8 apply this framework in terms of medicine as commerce, tuberculosis as punishment, and medical ethics as lacking.
Farmer’s last chapter rethinks health in terms of human rights, noting that the gap between idealized and actual human rights is growing worldwide. He returns to liberation theology as a compass for pragmatic service in solidarity with the poor and notes the importance between strategy (“who did what to whom and when”) and strategy (“what can be done”) when designing and enacting social justice interventions. Farmer ends with six suggestions to advance health and human rights: setting health and healing at the core of one’s agenda, having service central to one’s agenda, establishing new research agendas, assuming a broader international mandate, behaving independently in these endeavors, and securing more resources for the nascent health and human rights movement.
Farmer’s book has the strongest sense of urgency from the selection of books we’ve read for this course so far, given the life or death stakes that Farmer’s medical research operates in and the bioethics perspective he promotes. Given this urgency, Farmer’s book also reads as the most directly political, with previous authors we read in this course more likely to disguise their politics behind their traditional academic research agendas and theories. Not that previous author’s politics weren’t at the forefront of their work, but Farmer constantly reminds us about engaging in ethical research in commitment and solidarity with the poor.
Farmer, Paul. 2004. Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor. University of California Press.
Bourgois and Schonberg’s Righteous Dopefiend is a photographic ethnography of heroin addicts in San Francisco’s Edgewater neighborhood. The six assigned chapters introduce the project and the theory of abuse, race relations, gender relations, community, informal economies, and policy recommendations. The book is structured in terms of co-written text, photographs, and ethnographic field notes taken directly from Bourgois’, Schonberg’s, and others involved in the project. Co-written text structures the book and situates the various narratives in the broader theoretical contexts of deindustrialization, neoliberal reformations of public services, and gentrification. The accompanying black and white photographs anchor the representations of bodies and spaces to narrative descriptions in addition to creating affective reactions from the reader. Field notes, much like the photographs, serve as short vignettes where observations and conversations are foregrounded and theoretical subtexts and historical contexts are backgrounded.
Bourgois and Schonberg’s theory of lumpen abuse intersects Marxist critiques of capital with Bourdieu’s theory of symbolic violence and Foucault’s theory of governmentality. The authors further situate their field research in what Holocaust survivor Primo Levi calls a “gray zone,” a compromised situation where survival and self-preservation override all moral imperatives. Lumpen proletariats, the “scum, offal, refuse of all classes” in Marx’ words, are the leftovers of capitalist society, having no productive purpose because of “large scale, long-term, transformations in the organizations of the economy.” Furthermore, symbolic violence and governmentality work hand in hand to maintain lumpen populations in the margins of society; middle class values frame addiction as a personal choice and in turn these values are codified into policies. As such, the subjects of Righteous Dopefiend inhabit the gray zone these policies create and endure ongoing abuse at the fringes of society.
Despite their marginal position, the righteous dopefiends Bourgois and Schonberg study sustain the racist and gendered habitus of the society they’re alienated from, to the degree their addiction allows them. In chapter 1, the authors describe the processes of “apartheid” the homeless camps exhibit and document racist boundary-making white and Latino addicts engage in to distinguish themselves from blacks. Nonetheless, racism does not trump addiction, with most of the subjects putting their differences aside the moment “dopesickness” was imminent. Al and Sonny’s interracial friendship subverts the informal apartheid of the Edgewater camps. Al’s willingness to partner up with a black man is contextualized by the authors’ observation that Al grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood. Similarly, in chapter 2, Tina and Carter’s relationship preserves gender binaries and patriarchal dynamics. However, Tina, a dynamic presence in the camp, is subverts these tropes through her transactional vision of sex work and independence.
Chapters 3 and 5 concern bodies, whether in the hospital or at work. The images in chapter 3 drew the most guttural reactions from me, especially when accompanied by the graphic description of the various injuries (self-inflicted or medically-inflicted) that the Edgewater residents experienced. The authors’ description of how abscess treatment changed from debridement to lancing was a glimmer of hope in an otherwise bleak chapter that documented how the medical establishment abused these bodies, often on purpose, given the middle-class values upholding the policies of the medical establishment. Chapter 5 similarly deals with the informal gig economy the Edgewater homeless engage in and the different levels of exploitation they endure. The authors do a great job contextualizing the availability of work in Edgewater along a continuum of increasing globalization, privatization, and gentrification and situating the subjects of the study outside of a sustainable living wage even if their addictions were not an issue.
Bourgois and Schonberg’s conclusion make several pragmatic policy recommendations that address the neoliberal model that dominated when the book was written and continues to today. An interesting suggestion they make is heroin prescriptions. Considering the opioid crisis we’re currently in and the moral panic that has created, I’m not certain that recommendation is currently viable. If anything, the moral argument against that suggestion would point to the current crisis and assert that preventative opioid prescriptions don’t work. Regardless of the policy recommendations, Bourgois and Schonberg’s book humanizes these marginal subjects, undoing some of the symbolic violence we’ve become so accustomed to. Given the imagery and the narratives, I don’t think I’ll be able to look at a person on the side of the freeway and judge them in the same way I used to; in my eyes that makes Righteous Dopefiend a tremendous success.
Bourgois, Philippe, and Jeffrey Schonberg. 2009. Righteous Dopefiend. University of California Press.
Laurence Ralph’s Renegade Dreams centers on the community of Eastwood and the intersection of gang life, postmodern urban development, and media portrayals of this West Side Chicago neighborhood. Ralph focuses on individual perspectives to move away from essentialized versions of the “urban ghetto” in America and instead understand how these individuals navigate and negotiate their precarious existence precipitated by failed institutions and paternalistic policies. Ralph approaches the past “as an ambiguous space” that is “somewhere between history-as-registered and history-as-lived.” Through his ethnographic research, Ralph soon discovered that to many Eastwoodians history is emergent; in other words, their interpretation of what happened in the past, what they’re doing about it in the present, and what will happen in the future is heterogeneous, contested, and open ended. By understanding history in ambiguous terms, Eastwood residents frame tragedy, bodily harm, and urban isolation as sites of inspiration and potential for change.
Throughout the book Ralph introduces each chapter with a field note vignette drawn directly from his notebooks, setting the tone for each chapter by describing his feelings, doubts, and concerns while still in the field. Part one of the book contextualizes the theory of isolation as experienced in Eastwood. Chapter one provides a historical context of Eastwood vis-à-vis redevelopment efforts spearheaded by a well-intentioned but ideologically problematic church organization and the activist group protesting their proposal. Gangs play a salient role in the redevelopment since the “urban blight” gang members embody is an easy target for Chicago’s establishment to rally against. Further, the values the Chicago establishment espouse are reflected in the Eastwood Community Church’s (ECC) “rehabilitative” redevelopment plan. The Neighborhood Coalition provides a counternarrative to the rehabilitation narrative, pointing out the political and economic imperatives to redevelopment before the neighborhood ends up as “rubble and ash” and pragmatically engaging Divine Knight gang members to intimidate policymakers into hearing the coalition’s concerns. Though the coalition’s effort ultimately fails, the chapter complicates the roles of the ECC, the Neighborhood Coalition, and the Divine Knights in negotiating the future of Eastwood.
The next two chapters explore the narratives gang members from several generations tell themselves about the Divine Knights and how the performances expected and often required of gang members keep them stuck in the organization. Nostalgia serves frames emergent histories told from the perspectives of an old timer, a current gang leader, and a gang member still in high school and discusses the social capital that various types of shoes represent in the present. Ralph contextualizes the disdain both the old timer and older gang leader show current renegades in terms of their respective historical contexts, noting that even seemingly superficial concerns renegades discuss are reflections of these emergent narratives. Ralph uses Blizzard’s story in the next chapter to illustrate the self-fulfilling prophecies ploys for authenticity result in. Attempts at legitimacy, often fueled by popular culture tropes expressed in hip hop, lead men like Blizzard to make poor decisions, ultimately landing him in prison. Tosh, similarly imprisoned by gang life in his own body, uses his “failed” narrative to build a different sort of legitimacy, this time as a storyteller.
Part two of Ralph’s book explores the resilience of dreams through the Crippled Footprint Collective (CFC) and HIV education efforts in Eastwood. The CFC is a loose collective made up of wheelchair-bound former gang members and their efforts to reclaim their “damaged” bodies as tools for violence prevention. Ralph focuses on Justin’s efforts to share his testimony with current gang members at the House of Worship and outlines the considerable effort Justin goes into to make sure this meeting happens. Justin’s testimony is incredibly moving to the young gang members with its relatability. Ralph ends the chapter by highlighting how Justin transformed tragedy into a pathway for peacekeeping in the Divine Knights. Similarly in the next chapter, the multifaceted efforts to rehabilitate HIV positive residents remove stigma from their illness and serve as narratives of transformation for the community at large to follow.
Ralph’s conclusion is the best example of engaged social science in Renegade Dreams. Ralph spends considerable time discussing the issue of framing when studying Eastwood using the case study of a viral video portraying community violence. Ralph argues that the dominant narratives in America made it easy to frame this video as just another example of urban gang violence. However, in light of the previous chapters, the reader is provided with a more nuanced and plausible explanation for the violent death Derrion Albert through the lives of numerous Eastwoodians: the intersection of neoliberal policy reforms, isolation, and institutionalized racism in urban America.
Ralph, Laurence. 2014. Renegade Dreams: Living through Injury in Gangland Chicago. University of Chicago Press.
Robin D. G. Kelley’s Yo Mama’s Disfunktional! outlines the ideological culture war African Americans have engaged in through the latter half of the 20th century. By reframing the root causes of social issues in terms of individual actions, neoliberal/neoconservative agents minimize the role of policy and maximize the role of poor people of color in their own demise. Despite being written in the 90s, many of the issues Kelley brings to the forefront in his book continue to be relevant.
Kelley wrote the book in response to what he considers most prevalent and damaging “yo mama” joke in modern American society: the demonization of black mothers (and by extension black culture). Kelley describes how social scientists invented this version of “black culture” that is centered on poverty, (bad) behavior, and deficits. This oversimplified version of “blackness” glosses over hybridity and complexity in the black experience in America. These constructs, in turn, help justify the enactment of neoliberal policy decisions and provide vitriol for neoconservative ideologues to blame “black culture” for the social woes many black people experience.
Kelley provides case studies of basketball and hip-hop cultures as examples of this process of essentializing, leading to policy, leading to behavior, leading to additional essentializing, and so on, in a worsening cycle of judgement and policy action. Kelley argues that neoliberal reforms themselves created the rampant unemployment and social dilapidation that contextualize the emergence of basketball and hip-hop cultures in black America. Nevertheless, Kelley asserts that many social scientists, policymakers, and ideologues treat the hybridization of work and play these cultures represent as outcomes of black priorities and not as strategic decisions in response to structural deficits and symbolic violence levied upon the black community. Meanwhile, the neoliberal establishment argues that government assistance is precisely what led people to deficit situations in the first place, with “bootstrap” solutions serving as the only appropriate way out of these deficits. Kelley responds to this neoliberal ideal by suggesting that black Americans should feel entitled to the assistance they deserve as tax-paying citizens and that self-built ideologies are myths upheld by corruption and government subsidies (in other words welfare systems) for the rich.
Kelley also attacks the ideologies espoused by activists in the left framing class struggle as more important than “identity politics.” Kelley situates these arguments within neo-Enlightenment thought and teases out the racist/sexist/prejudiced/politicized perspectives hiding behind their supposed “universalism.” Kelley also cites racist construction worker unions in the 60s and AFL-CIO’s alignment with cold war policies as examples of prejudiced/politicized action even within the “universalist” framework. Kelley’s last chapter then surveys examples of (then) current union activism that best approach the slogan from the Black Women’s United Front: “abolition of every possibility of oppression and exploitation.” Two salient trends in these examples of union activism include the tendency for labor in the United States (and the world) to become increasingly contingent/subcontracted and the approaches organized labor takes to unify a decentralized mass of workers.
Kelley’s book is disappointingly relevant, despite being as old as many third and fourth year undergraduate students currently enrolled at UCLA. The culture war waged against people of color is ongoing, with social media and the internet amplifying these battles daily, and giving contingents on multiple sides of these arguments the means to wage post-mortems after every such engagement. Just last Friday (editor’s note: 4/20/18 at the time this was written), Candace Owens, a black neoconservative personality, spoke at UCLA and engaged in the very rhetoric Kelley described 20 years ago. She accused Black Lives Matter activists protesting the event of engaging in “a culture of victimhood” and praised her audience for embracing “a victor” culture. Then rapper Kanye West tweeted that “[he loves] how Candace Owens thinks” and dozens of ideologically driven blogs and news outlets responded. Nevertheless, these tools are also available for activists and radicals as well, with the potential for widespread, decentralized social movement in the vein of the Black Women’s United Front constantly evolving and hopefully emerging.
Kelley, Robin D. G. 1997. Yo’ Mama’s Disfunktional!: Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America. Beacon Press.
Forrest Stuart’s Down Out & Under Arrest paints a cinematic picture of life in Los Angeles’ Skid Row through his ethnographic research of police, residents, and advocacy populations over five years, 2007-2012. Though he never intended for his research to involve the police, it became inevitable for him to engage Central Division officers in his research after repeated interactions Skid Row residents resulted in Stuart describing a pattern of behavior he termed “becoming copwise.” According to Stuart, the process of becoming copwise among residents of Skid Row was a defacto “folk ethnography of policing” that extracted successful behavioral interventions residents could engage in to minimize their interactions with aggressive policing. Because cop wisdom was an effect policing had on his original research subjects, Stuart had to engage police officers and police leadership to understand the causes behind the policing choices that led Skid Row residents to their cop-influenced behavior.
Though chapter 1 wasn’t assigned, I couldn’t resist reading it given the context it gave about Skid Row’s current structure. What was most helpful about this chapter was the three-arc history Stuart sketched about Skid Row, from paternalistic, to maintenance-centric, and back to paternalistic. As I read the assigned chapters, it was useful to map the subject’s behaviors to these historical framing elements and the therapeutic policing pattern Stuart experienced first-hand.
Chapter 2 discusses the police. It’s shrewd for Stuart to begin his ethnographic analysis with cops since they are shaping the behaviors chapters 3-5 will describe most directly. The most important takeaway from this chapter is that regardless how “evil” the officer’s actions seem to Skid Row residents, readers, or even Stuart himself most of the officers believe they are acting in the best interests of Skid Row’s residents. It would have been easy to make this book into another cop-hating piece of social justice research. Instead, Stuart complicated Central Division’s role in the matter, painting many officers’ arrests as interventions on behalf of Skid Row residents that stemmed from a deep commitment to the community and its people. The symbiosis this police paternalism had with the shelters was also very enlightening, given the shelter’s deeply ideological expression of assistance. It is precisely through this ideological disconnect that Skid Row residents framed police actions as victimization rather than assistance.
Chapters 3 and 4 discuss two approaches to “becoming copwise,” through a group of friends and the “Skid Row weight pile” and through a group of street vendors. Ironically, both versions of cop wisdom resulted in individuals performing “police work” on themselves and others because of their interpretations and applications of their unique “folk ethnographies of policing.” The Skid Row weight pile chapter really broke my heart. The weight pile crew’s worst crime, in my estimation, was that of creating an unsanctioned therapeutic intervention that ran counter the “approved” ideology of recovery. Stuart did such an excellent job painting these characters that I hope a great director and screenwriter pair up to make an amazing movie out of chapter 3. Chapter 4, though less cinematic is perhaps more interesting in its implications, since self-policing among street vendors has effects beyond the vendors themselves. Again, through their “folk ethnography policing,” street vendors are quick to identify and eliminate those elements in their block that “don’t belong,” including drug users, white people, and women.
Stuart’s methodological appendix was useful describing the effects of his positionality and the rationale for his sampling strategy, two items that were closely entangled. Stuart’s identity, appearance, and occupation was a challenge for engaging with Skid Row residents and an advantage when interacting with cops. Though his intended research subjects were Skid Row residents it quickly became obvious he would have to engage police officers in an “inconvenience sample” of interactions that ran counter to the data he had collected about police behavior thus far. After a surprisingly easy integration into the cop community, it became necessary for Stuart to engage with yet another “inconvenience sample,” this time of policing and community activists (Los Angeles Community Action Network and the Catholic Worker). This “switching sides” upset many of the officers he had worked with, ending much of his access to him and potentially making him a target for police retaliation. Though methodology is often labeled “the boring stuff” in social science research, I found Stuart’s openness about his methods and commitment to rigor, despite the inconvenience it would cause, extremely validating to his work.
Stuart, Forrest. 2016. Down, Out, and Under Arrest: Policing and Everyday Life in Skid Row. University of Chicago Press.
This week’s reading establishes the idea of activist research. Hale’s introduction outlines the structure of the book, engaging with the various themes the volume will cover and making a case for activist scholarship. Hale begins by showcasing the contention between traditional scholarship and its positivist, neoliberal, objectivist application and politically aware scholarship, with its dialogical, person-centric collaborative approach. He spends the rest of the introduction countering three arguments against activist scholarship: that it is not methodologically rigorous, that its politics get in the way of its outcomes, and that practice makes for bad theory. Ultimately, Hale’s goal for this book is not that of a roadmap to follow but a provocation to pursue and reclaim scholarship for one’s own truths.
Part I of the book includes chapter 1-3 and covers the conceptions of space within an activist framework. Gilmore engages marginalized people within forgotten spaces by referring to the Malay term desakota which translates to town-country, a space that is neither urban or rural. I grew up in Kern County, where some of Gilmore’s research takes place and can attest to the prison infection the area has experienced over the last 30 years. Nabudere, continues by outlining the movement towards subject-centered research in the global south and describing participatory research approach or PRA and how it was deployed in Africa. Using this work as a compass, the Marcus Garvey Pan-Afrikan Institute was been established to preserve and connect the multiplicity of knowledges, traditional and otherwise, that a place like Uganda supports. Finally, Lipsitz writes to legitimize activist social movements and the knowledge they produce in order to “break the chains and to steer the ship.”
Part II in the book complicates the role of the researcher in activist work, introducing notions of positionality into activist scholarship. Pierre’s piece begins with a pithy observation from a Ghanaian asking her about her research: “[r]ace? [t]hat’s a U.S. problem.” The rest of the chapter goes on to disentangle the role of the researcher in defining the issue under study and how complicated that becomes when studying another culture. Pierre ends by noting the importance of situating knowledge, both one’s own and that of one’s subjects. Costa Vargas’ piece is my favorite in this week’s assigned readings. Very much like quantum physics, Costa Vargas warns against the impossibility of observing without influencing and makes the strongest case for becoming the subject through his research in the Coalition Against Police Abuse (CAPA) and the Community in Support of the Gang Truce (CSGT). Rather than engaging in the traditional participant observation, Costa Vargas inverts the anthropological standby into observant participation, the only way to researching activist groups like these is to become one of them. This piece was my favorite because it dealt with recent history, local politics, and COINTELPRO, a very relatable cocktail of information.
Hale, Charles R., ed. 2008. Engaging Contradictions: Theory, Politics, and Methods of Activist Scholarship. 1st ed. University of California Press.
Quantum Mind and Social Science by Alexander Wendt
note: i was not kind to wendt, so skip to the next section if you’re a fan
Wendt’s suggestion that the quantum mind plays an important role in framing social science ends up reading quite a bit pseudoscientific for me. I’m no quantum physics expert but when metaphysical issues that have been missing solutions for eons are magically resolved by emerging scientific models in completely unrelated fields, I question before I embrace.
Quantum physics is based on models that match observations. We are still a long way from deciding whether these models are realistic descriptions of how particles behave or whether they are good models describing outcomes but have no basis in empirical reality. The only thing we can say about these models with confidence is that they’re good at predicting experiments.
My fundamental problem with Wendt is that he frames the quantum mind and its role in social science as a reality and then traces the implications to human behavior based on that premise. Were Wendt applying the quantum mind more “weakly,” in other words, as a metaphor (like Haraway’s cyborg) I’d be more open to accept this notion. However, Wendt’s treatment of quantum brain theory and panpsychic unity are “strongly” applied, quantum effects are observable in the social and suggest a means to unifying the subject/object, mind/body, wave/particle divide. Wendt states:
Quantum brain theory takes known effects at the sub-atomic level and scales them upward to the macroscopic level of the brain. However, by itself this would not explain consciousness, since it does not tell us why any physical system, even one as mind-bogglingly complex as a quantum computer, would be conscious. This question is addressed by the ontology of panpsychism. Panpsychism takes a known effect at the macroscopic level - that we are conscious - and scales it downward to the sub-atomic level, meaning that matter is intrinsically minded.
There’s nothing wrong with demanding a leap of faith from one’s readers, especially when the framing of the problem shrinks the faith chasm to a few inches. Butler did an excellent job doing this when she presented her resignification premise; through the genealogies of power she outlined it wasn’t difficult to accept her premise of fluidity of signifiers as resistance. The chasm Butler presented was more of a skip than a leap. When Wendt describes the quantum brain and panpsychic in earnest and uses it to explain individual and group subjectivities and unite them within theoretical objects, I can’t help but feel like a social science Wile E. Coyote running towards the edge of the Grand Canyon with an Acme-branded Quantum-mind rocket strapped on my back.
Furthermore, Wendt’s subjective-quantum provocations, that the subjective is unobservable, can be entangled at a distance, lives in infinite states until it suddenly converges on the “correct state” doesn’t require quantum physics to be enacted as a metaphysical theory. Take for example Jung’s collective unconscious; this concept ticks off every quantum check box without the need for particle physics. My suspicion is that Wendt is looking to legitimize unfalsifiable political theorizing through an appeal to the scientific and deploys the trendiest, most unfalsifiable scientific model to accomplish this. Let’s leave that type of posturing to the self-help aisle.
Action Network Theory by Bruno Latour
Latour’s approach is much more plausible than Wendt’s, even if they overlap in the breadth of their goals and implications of their explanations. Latour warns against theorizing based on a preconceived idea of the social and instead suggests that sociology’s focus should be situated among the interactions of living and non-living actors and their networks. This process, rather than a sociology of the social, presents a sociology of associations. Latour elaborates:
Whereas, in the first approach, every activity—law, science, technology, religion, organization, politics, management, etc.—could be related to and explained by the same social aggregates behind all of them, in the second version of sociology there exists nothing behind those activities even though they might be linked in a way that does produce a society—or doesn’t produce one.
Latour calls this sociology of associations Action Network Theory (ANT). ANT challenges traditional theory-building in sociology that attempts to provide universal insight about the social world. ANT instead posits that there is no social world. Instead, ANT suggests that infinite social worlds exist, each with its own, locally determined knowledge system and purpose. Rather than finding the “right” system of knowledge, Latour insists that the role of the social scientist is instead to explore this multiverse, document what is happening in each world as its actors do and not as the observer judges should be, and theory-build based on these hyper-local observations, acknowledging that by engaging in this process the researcher is affecting that which they observe. Though Latour frames ANT as a radical break from sociological tradition, he also acknowledges that all he’s suggesting is an alternative methodology. He avoids the term, however, to prevent preconceptions from invading ANT before the project is fully operationalized.
Relativity is the operating principle in the exploratory world of ANT. Controversy isn’t something to resolve as much as it is something to understand. Rather than asking “what is right?” or “what is better?” ANT demands that the researcher simply describe the world they are observing, decoupled from any preconceived notions of that which it is they’re observing. The full book describes five sources of controversy but we only were assigned the first three.
ANT posits that groups don’t exist, only group builders. Therefore, traditional sociologists spend much of their time creating and destroying categories rather than describing them. ANT instead suggests that researchers study the process of group building as it occurs. Similarly, ANT posits that agency of things, individuals, or groups is often taken for granted for the sake of observations fitting theories. As such, external effects like things, individuals, or other networks are often ignored in the service of theory building. ANT suggests that these agencies be followed to the bitter end to best describe the process the researcher is studying. Lastly (at least in these readings) is the idea that objects, too, have agency and that this agency shouldn’t be taken for granted by researchers. The agency of objects isn’t necessarily action-based (after all they’re inanimate for the most part) but the influence of things like money or infrastructures stabilize actors and encourage particular types of behaviors. It is the duty of the ANT researcher to identify these inanimate agents and document their influence.
I like ANT. It aligns with a perspective I’ve had throughout this class whenever we encountered a paradigm-destroying concept that made engaging in social science seem impossible and worst of all pointless. ANT suggests a new method for continuing valuable social science, one actor at a time.
A Theory of Aspects by Davide Panagia
Should a gut feeling be necessarily “wrong”? Through his theory of aspects, Panagia suggests that political theory can be founded on aspects, associations of media free of evaluative criteria that demands a correct (and therefore incorrect) interpretation. Panagia begins with the orthodox perspective and its reliance on “the textual treatise” as the “archetype of the complete and coherent work.” These media, through their structure, demand a “continuity, coherence, and completion” to a theoretical piece, suggesting that these arguments must contain a beginning, middle, and end to remain valid. Panagia ends his introduction by encouraging his readers to engage in an intervention with the various forms of media political theorists found their theories on, to “think about the nature of media themselves, their archaeologies, and their agential partaking with the practices of theorizing.”
This piece is divided into three sections. The first section discusses Taylor, Skinner, and Tully’s insights on interpretation. Panagia notes the importance of Taylor and Skinner’s insights about hermeneutic cycles but ultimately frames them as evaluative in how either author “treats meaning and understanding as identifiable in the same way that the positivist treats data as identifiable.” Tully, in relief to Taylor and Skinner and committed to Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, asserts that understanding and interpretation are different processes, that understanding is immediate, and that interpretation only follows when understanding fails. The immediacy of understanding (“grasping”) then frees it from epistemic verification or evaluative criteria.
The second section engages with three fragments from Barthes, Cavell, and Derrida to illustrate the “domain of experience that operates fluently with the unverifiable.” At first glance, the fragments are obviously connected in their commitment to describe knowledge that is not “legitimately” earned. However, as Panagia identifies the fragments the source texts and contexts are seemingly unrelated; Barthes is discussing photography, Cavell literature, and Derrida painting. On one level, Panagia deploys these three seemingly “fleeting impressions” that nonetheless posit robust theoretical points as examples of aspects. On another level, Panagia’s collection of these three impressions is itself an exercise in aspect-based theorizing, since no heuristic but Panagia’s own could have resulted in this collection of examples and interpretations.
Lastly, the third section deploys the agency of communicative tools like the file cabinet, newspaper clippings, and slide projectors “for the extracting, arranging, and presentation of aspects.” If section two dealt with human agents confronting aspect-based modes of theory building, then the last section discusses the agency mediatic tools for building aspect-based arguments exhibit. Further, this agency shapes how human agents deploy and understand meaning. For example, the conception of the “papered subject,” a Foucauldian vision of the individual collated, catalogued, and codified within a state bureaucracy would be impossible without the humble filing cabinet and the structure inherent in its use. Newspaper clippings and slide projectors, on the other hand, deploy new avenues for semantic associations by aggregating similar subjects chronologically (in the case of newspapers) or spatially (in the case of slide projectors).
Panagia continues, “the ambition of a theory of aspects is to show how organization may occur without a pre-articulated common measure.” The social science stakes of this stance is similar to ANT, in that aspect theory grants actors (whether alive or not) the power of theory building and not the other way around. Panagia’s conclusion is an ideal way to end this set of writing on political philosophy: “a theory of aspects is fundamentally concerned with the nature of living together in the absence of a standard of living.”
On the Plurality of Feminisms
This week’s readings are a survey of the several permutations of contemporary feminist perspectives. The four readings are informed by the foundational polemic from last week’s assignment. However, they are not limited to taking sides on that polemic. Instead, these readings suggest a way to get past that foundational issue (Anderson), deconstruct long-standing assumptions about the feminist project and its political theories (McClure), understand the implications of framing politics around identity issues (Brown), or suggest an alternative goal for feminist emancipation, freedom rather than equality (Zerilli).
The social science stakes for these perspectives lie in the framing of political problems. By understanding the perspectives presented here, one can engage with a variety of feminisms theoretically without essentializing or ignoring what they stand for.
Debatable Performances by Amanda Anderson
Anderson restages last week’s contention between Benhabib and Butler. Like Fraser, Anderson attempts to reconcile both perspectives (Habermasian and Foucaldian) as not necessarily mutually exclusive. Anderson spends most of her article analyzing Benhabib and Butler’s arguments, working to reconcile Benhabib’s Habermasian position of communicative ethics with Butler’s subversions of identity. Benhabib describes communicative ethics thusly:
Instead of asking what I as a single rational moral agent can intend or will to be a universal moral maxim for all without contradiction, the communicative ethicist asks: what principles of action can we all recognize or agree to as being valid if we engage in practical discourse or a mutual search for justification?
In other words, rather than searching for a universal form of morality, the duty of a communicative ethicist is instead to engage in the creation of moral standards through recognition and consensus in discourse. Butler, of course, finds that discourse, recognition, and consensus are insidious forms of power that through their operation normalize the subject. Anderson criticizes Butler’s resistance to communicative ethics and further suggests that Butler’s critique itself serves a normative purpose (much like Butler did to postmodernists in last week’s piece). Anderson finishes:
By casting all attempts to characterize such practices as pernicious normalizing, Butler effectively disables her own project and leaves herself no recourse but to issue dogmatic condemnations and approvals.
Anderson has the pithiest summary for the foundational polemic so far encountered:
For Benhabib, politics involves consolidating autonomy for the greater collectivity; for Butler politics involves deconstructing autonomy as the basis of any individual or collective life.
Can a Marxist morality survive the poststructural death of the subject? The dead horse continues to be beaten:
My larger question is whether the theory of communicative ethics can encompass political practices that involve the subversive staging of identifications and disidentifications such as Butler elaborates and, if not, whether this is a serious drawback to that theory… …In its elaboration of a moral ideal and its reliance on the attainment of enabling intersubjective practices, communicative ethics is not fatally compromised by identity logic and hegemonic normalization. I would suggest that the best use we can make of the Butler-Benhabib dispute is to begin the difficult work of thinking beyond this impasse.
Anderson concludes that, sure, zombie Marxism works, can we start talking about something else now?
The Issue of Foundations by Kirstie McClure
What are feminist politics and is there a cohesive, universal practice to them? Absolutely not:
The problem here, since feminist political theory is motivated not by an abstract attachment to universal values but by a practical commitment to ending women’s oppression, is decidedly political; for these divisions within feminism are represented quite explicitly as mutually exclusive theoretical authorities competing for the privilege of guiding feminist practice.
McClure does not mince words; there is no universal feminism. Though decidedly political if feminism’s definition is attached unequivocally to “ending women’s oppression,” the methods for achieving this vary depending on the theoretical framework one is attached to (equality, difference, radical to name a handful). Further, McClure highlights a contradiction inherent to the feminist politics project; “despite the newness predicated of feminist politics, its political character appears to be equivocal; for it suggests both a departure from and a continuity with “the political” as it has come to be understood in the wake of the rise of “the social.” That is, feminism, regardless of the framework it follows, aims to fundamentally disrupt society while at the same time well maintaining it for its political use.
McClure explains this equivocation more generally, highlighting its circularity. In summary, to understand a social world, we must theorize about causality within that world. If our aim is political, like it is for feminism, then we are expected to intervene within that social world in order to change it. However, our intervention is informed “from the outset” by our theorizing and whatever action we take affects the measurements of the theory-informed framework we are utilizing to understand that social world. Therefore, by politically engaging in a social world we’re theorizing about we are serving as both the measuring tool and the measurement.
Regardless of the flavor of feminism one follows, McClure asserts that the “theories, social analyses, programmatic goals and specifiable agencies or methods for achieving them” of different feminisms have been categorized into “the political” in a similar vein to those of liberals, conservatives or Marxists. Thus, politicized feminisms, regardless of their variation and operationalization are “legitimate” political projects. McClure’s final suggestion is that rather than confronting this plurality with an eye for finding the “best” political explanation or political mobilization project, one should instead consider these differing foundations “a matter of breathing room for the articulation of new knowledges, new agencies, and new practices—a matter, in short, of working toward a new configuration of “the political.””
Wounded Attachments by Wendy Brown
Brown’s chapter confronts identity production in the United States, questioning the subordinating influence group identification has on the individual and suggesting how this subordination yields individual agency to the universalist state. Brown provides an excellent example of this process by describing how an anti-discrimination law codifies discrimination and its victims:
Indeed, through the definitional, procedural, and remedies sections of this ordinance (e.g., “sexual orientation shall mean known or assumed homosexuality, heterosexuality, or bisexuality”) persons are reduced to observable social attributes and practices defined empirically, positivistically as if their existence were intrinsic and factual, rather than effects of discursive and institutional power; and these positivist definitions of persons as their attributes and practices are written into law, ensuring that persons describable according to them will now become regulated through them… …Indeed, here is a perfect instance of how the language of recognition becomes the language of unfreedom, how articulation in language, in the context of liberal and disciplinary discourse, becomes a vehicle of subordination through individualization, normalization, and regulation, even as it strives to produce visibility and acceptance.
To Brown, the danger in identity politics arises from the framing process it depends on. If a politically defined identity is wholly contingent on the subordinated framing it’s presented in, then it becomes difficult to maintain that identity beyond the subordination. Perversely, identity politics can undermine the very emancipatory project they’re involved with because full emancipation would erase the agents working towards it. Brown’s challenge then is “to configure a radically democratic political culture that can sustain such a project in its midst without being overtaken by it.” Rather than relying on framing identity as a deficit to be overcome, Brown instead suggests that we treat engage with identity as an ongoing process of becoming.
Feminists Make Promises by Linda Zerilli
Of the four assigned readings, this was my favorite because it describes an applied feminism rather than a theoretical one. Zerilli begins by quoting the Milan Bookstore Collective’s translator/editor interpretation of this feminism as “a freedom that, paradoxically, demands no vindication of the rights of woman, no equal rights under the law, but only a full, political and personal accountability to women, is as startlingly radical a notion as any that has emerged in Western thought.”
Zerilli quickly identifies the false dichotomy that has plagued feminism throughout its history: is its goal to be equal to men or different to men? The Milanese Bookstore Collective suggests that neither matters; what matters is feminism for feminism’s sake. By removing the need for women to choose between the options given by this false dichotomy (or even the obligation to improve society), women are thus free to act.
For the Milanese Bookstore Collective, action is the key even if it comes with judgement and difference. To the Milanese group, solidarity (autocoscienza), was constraining in that it silenced internal oppositions and preferences. According to Zerilli’s retelling, the importance of disagreement was discovered as the collective engaged in a minimally political activity (anthologizing feminist writers). In their disagreements over whether to include Jane Austen in the anthology, the collective realized that their differences in opinion were hidden by solidarity. Only through the minimally political act of anthologizing writers were they able to discover these differences since they would have hidden them behind their autocoscienza had the stakes been higher. Despite the discomfort they felt disagreeing, the freedom to be their own women as opposed to the women they were supposed to be was what kickstarted their applied feminist project, since “without a space for strong conflicts or disagreements, there was no space for strong desires and no possibility of genuine politics.”
For the Milanese group action trumps framing and enabling other women to act is feminism’s purpose. Through this encouragement to act, women can show their solidarity to other women without framing themselves as inferior or different. Only through this freedom of action can a woman then “signify her belonging to the female sex, well knowing it is not an object of choice.” Zerilli continues:
Thus, when read not through the subject question but through the practice of freedom that was its original home and aspiration, a claim to rights is not-or not simply-a demand for recognition of what one is; it is a demand for acknowledgment of who one is, and, more important, of who one might become… …Rights are not things but relationships; they are not something we have, they are something we do, they don’t just constrain they enable relationships. Female freedom is guaranteed by women themselves.
In other words, it is through the practice of freedom that women get to assert who they are, not what they are; who they might become, not what they could be; and how to enact their rights, not receive them. The onus is thus entirely on women but rather than seeming overwhelming this project seems legitimately emancipatory.
Feminism and Postmodernism: An Uneasy Alliance by Seyla Benhabib
Benhabib begins her piece by connecting feminism with postmodernism and framing feminism and postmodernism as two approaches seemingly united in their “struggle against the grand narratives of Western enlightenment and modernity.” The seeming connection stems from the movements’ commitment to the death of man, of history, and of metaphysics. Paraphrasing Benhabiib quoting Flax, the death of man comes with the destruction of essential conceptions of humanity or nature and instead situates man as a social, historical, or linguistic artifacts enslaved to their contexts. The death of history is related to the death of man insofar as history was the story of man; by demystifying man the importance of history is exposed for the arbitrary collection of facts about man it is. Finally, the death of metaphysics follows the exposure of Western thinkers’ attempt to “master the world” by describing it with a system of universal truths and beliefs, applicable in all histories and contexts.
The feminist overlap of the death of man, history, and metaphysics is as follows. Feminism’s death of man arose from the exposure of the inherent male subjectivity of reason, challenging the “objective” notions western thought posited as given. Feminism’s death of history arose from the admission that all official historical subjects have generally been white male Christian head of households and the legitimization of subaltern historical narratives white male history doesn’t cover. Finally, the death of metaphysics arose from challenges to notions of “transcendent reason” through the exposure and acknowledgment of power structures reinforced by gender relations in the social system.
Nevertheless, the seeming coherence between the two perspectives is challenged by how the postmodernism and feminism frame the practices they aim to evaluate and describe. Benhabib describes these contentions in terms of weak and strong postmodernist stances to the deaths of man, history, and metaphysics. The implications of the strong postmodernist stances, especially the metaphysical, severely limits what philosophy can achieve, especially in terms of epistemology or, that is (Benhabib paraphrasing Rorty) the practice of legitimizing knowledge. Benhabib follows the delegitimization of philosophy as an analytical tool with several questions:
Does not philosophy become a form of genealogical critique of regimes of discourse and power as they succeed each other in their endless historical monotony? Or maybe philosophy becomes a form of thick cultural narration of the sort that hitherto only poets had provided us with? Or maybe all that remains of philosophy is a form of sociology of knowledge, which instead of investigating the conditions of the validity of knowledge and action, investigates the empirical conditions under which communities of interpretation generate such validity claims?
The result within feminists in the decade preceding the article, Benhabib argues, is “a retreat from utopia,” or “the debunking as essentialist any attempt to formulate a feminist ethic, a feminist politics, a feminist concept of autonomy, and even a feminist aesthetic.” The social science stakes of this piece suggest that a postmodernist stance is not compatible with a feminist stance since postmodernism negates “the very emancipatory ideals of the women’s movements altogether.”
Contingent Foundations: Feminism and the Question of “Postmodernism” by Judith Butler
Butler, in contrast, doesn’t damn a working relationship between postmodernism and feminism. Instead, Butler challenges the very meaning of postmodernism, and suggests the conflation of postmodernism, poststructuralism, deconstruction, French feminism, Lacan, Foucault, Rorty, cultural studies, high-modernism, and the avant garde. Postmodernism, to Butler, isn’t so much a problem as it is an undefined, inconsistent pastiche of thoughts that are conveniently described as a cohesive antiauthoritarian whole. The irony of postmodernism then is that through its resistance to all forms of power it exercises its own version of power.
Butler summarizes the point of postmodernism (or more accurately poststructuralism) thusly:
To establish a set of norms that are beyond power or force is itself a powerful and forceful conceptual practice that sublimates, disguises, and extends its own power play through recourse to tropes of normative universality. And the point is not to do away with foundations, or even to champion a position that goes under the name of antifoundationalism. Both of those positions belong together as different versions of foundationalism and the skeptical problematic it engenders. Rather, the task is to interrogate what the theoretical move that establishes foundations authorizes, and what precisely it excludes or forecloses.
Butler defends against the suggestion that she is simply seeking a broader, comprehensive universality. If anything, she is seeking a “permanently open, permanently contested, permanently contingent” notion of universality that serves as a “site of permanent political contest.”
Butler continues with a case study of the first Iraq war, interrogating a series of foundational “givens” assumed by the military masculine Western subject waging the war. She notes Foucault’s analysis of the displaced subject that erases the trajectory of his prior actions and instead identifies himself as an intentional actor. Absent of a genealogy, the subject engages in talking head television interviews that reify military strategy and provide a means for disembodied observation of their “pure” intentionality through live video from the battlefield. Of course, the effects of the subject’s actions “always have the power to proliferate beyond the subject’s control” and “challenge the rational transparency of that subject’s intentionality” thus “subvert[ing] the very definition of the subject itself.”
This analysis of the pregiven subject and his intentionality supports Butler’s claim that notions of agency are “always and only a political prerogative.” In other words, what is given about a subject requires ongoing production from all participants within the matrix of power. As such, the subject isn’t as much dead as it is “insidiously” political.
Perhaps Butler’s most damning indictment of “postmodernist” thinking is the suggestion that the death of the subject conveniently coincides with women finally assuming subjecthood. The stakes for social science are most clearly spelled out here, since the tools being used to uncover power dynamics form a power dynamic themselves, “through the regulation and production of subjects.” Rather than getting rid of subjecthood, Butler suggests we instead open the concept up to multiple definitions.
Butler ends with the polemic of what should be the constituency of feminism as an example of a subject struggling to accept its fluidity. A universalist perspective, Butler argues, normalizes and thus supports factionalization. Iterable, denaturalized subjects serving as sites of political debate are therefore the way forward for feminism and its constituents, whomever they may be.
False Antitheses: A Response to Seyla Benhabib and Judith Butler by Nancy Fraser
Fraser situates Benhabib and Butler within the purviews of critical theory and postructuralism and argues that Benhabib and Butler are forcing us to choose between the two movements. This false antithesis is built on flawed premises both authors make; Fraser then uses her text to expose those flawed premises and integrate these two perspectives into the feminist theory toolkit.
Fraser starts with Benhabib’s discussion of the death of history. Fraser argues that Benhabib’s rejection of the stronger claim glosses over nuance, effectively making a strawman argument against the postmodernist position. Fraser cites her work with Nicholson as an example of a middle ground approach towards studying history that blends the best of critical theory, postmodernism, and feminism. This approach relies on the rejection of historical metanarratives, without rejecting large-scale empirical narratives or a commitment to emancipation.
Fraser then follows with the Benhabib’s treatment of the death of metaphysics. There are two positions Benhabib rejects in this analysis: the existence of universal metanarratives of discourse and the rejection of all normative claims resulting in a purely descriptive epistemology of discourse. Fraser then highlights a third position that Benhabib doesn’t develop: that of situated social criticism, which is a context-conscious form of social criticism. Benhabib states that situated criticism needs philosophy to describe its contexts and absent of this tool the task becomes impossible. Fraser contends this perspective by suggesting that the subject of criticism, the critic, and any claims that are made can and should be historically situated and that this process of situation does not rely on universalist philosophical tools.
Fraser then turns her attention to Butler, who provides the converse of Benhabib’s polemic by systematically picking apart at a cohesive vision of postmodernism and suggesting its feminism-undermining implications are instead reinforcing to feminism. Fraser focuses on Butler’s counter to the death of man, referencing Benhabib’s strong version of the postmodernist stance that describes the subject as nothing more than discourse. Butler’s stance is very Foucauldian in that that the subject, despite being the aggregate of historical signifying processes of power still can resignify itself through reworking that very power. Fraser is uncomfortable by the dehumanizing language Butler uses here. Though Butler could be describing emancipatory processes, the language is so abstract that “resignification” could simply be describing change. Further, Butler’s additional point that the creation of subjects is a form of subjugation that privileges those it defines and erases those it doesn’t is also problematic for Fraser in its zero-sum stance. Fraser states that Butler’s version of women’s liberation is liberation from identity since Butler views identity as inherently oppressive. However, in being free from an identity, feminism as a movement loses much of its directed emancipatory power.
Fraser concludes her article with a summary of the antitheses she documented in Benhabib and Butler and resolutions to each of these polarities:
Instead of clinging to a series of mutually reinforcing false antitheses, we might conceive subjectivity as endowed with critical capacities and as culturally constructed. Similarly, we might view critique as simultaneously situated and amenable to self-reflection, as potentially radical and subject to warrants. Likewise, we might posit a relation to history that is at once antifoundationalist and politically engaged, while promoting a field of multiple historiographies that is both contextualized and provisionally totalizing. Finally, we might develop a view of collective identities as at once discursively constructed and complex, enabling of collective action and amenable to mystification, in need of deconstruction and reconstruction.
The social science stakes in this piece frees the reader from the false dichotomy of critical theory and postmodernism that Benhabib and Butler suggest. Instead, Fraser suggests that a work can integrate both perspectives and still retain its feminist perspective.