I Quit!

I am no longer a PhD student!

I have cleared out my office space, returned all my library books, gotten my $10 deposit back on the bathroom key (really). But no, I haven’t gotten my doctorate. I’ve dropped out. I’ve decided to cut my losses and move on to something that’s better for me.

It wasn’t easy to drop out. After all, I’ve never done it before in my life. But I’m not alone – roughly half of American PhD students in the social sciences will do just that. The reason it’s so hard for us to realize we need to stop is because it runs counter to everything we’ve ever done, and also to the identities we have constructed for ourselves. We’re smart people. Smart people become professors and get “Dr.” in front of their names. By definition, we are the kind of people who thrive in academic settings. We breezed through high school, loved doing our BAs, and remain insatiably curious about our topics of interest. Going on to get a doctorate seems like the logical thing to do when you’re that kind of person, right? And there’s really no reason we can’t succeed if we just work hard enough, right?

Well, no. I was dead wrong.

Of course, I did my research ahead of applying to a PhD program, and I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but because I had never had any trouble getting things done throughout my post-secondary education, I assumed I could surmount any problems with the same ease I had previously experienced. And of course, everybody likes to think she will be an exception. Everybody wants to believe, I have enough passion to get this done, I am conscientious enough to finish quickly, I am dedicated enough to deflect any adversity that may get thrown my way. Yes, I may not be earning much, but I’ll get some fellowships or bursaries. Yes, I won’t be getting much supervision, but I’m independent and I can motivate myself. After all, that’s what the story has been in our lives up until that point, so why should we expect the PhD should be any different? We have always been dedicated, we have always been academically exceptional. We’re doing what seems to fit us perfectly.

The problem is, it IS different. A PhD is another animal altogether. The old rules don’t apply. Sometimes really, really smart people have the most difficulty. It’s not a matter of intelligence or enthusiasm or how much you want to succeed. It’s how well you do this new and tricky dance. It’s academic office politics, it’s a matter of how other people feel about your passions and how your interests align with theirs, it’s a matter of how many stumbling blocks arbitrarily get thrown in your path. And unlike other countries, where you go in knowing your dissertation topic and finish in three or four years, at Berkeley the average time to degree for sociology PhDs is nine years. Nine. Years. I convinced myself I could be done in five – six at most – but I quickly found so many obstacles in my path that it became clear it wouldn’t happen. Having just completed my third year, I can walk away with an MA in sociology, but I do wish I had come to this realization a bit quicker. I guess I was just too optimistic, expecting things would get better. They didn’t.

Shortly after starting, I found that one rug after another began to get pulled out from beneath my feet. I had been told I would get some credit, and consequently some exemptions from coursework, for already having a master’s degree. Nope nope nope, didn’t happen. I thought I would have the opportunity to earn as much as the other students in my cohort because I wanted to work really hard. Nope nope nope, my salary was half of everybody else’s my first semester because a fourth-year student needed a job and was inexplicably given half of mine. I couldn’t come close to making the rent on my university-owned shared apartment! I was led to believe I would have a stipend every year. Nope nope nope, it was gone after the first. I expected this university would have the computer software I would need for doing my statistical analysis. I honestly thought I wouldn’t have to bang my head against the wall with so many administrative nightmares, and even if I did, I figured somebody would be able to point me in the right direction to get them fixed. I assumed I would be treated as capable, and I would have opportunities to interact with lots of people who shared my interests. Nope, nope, and nope.

I went from being a happy, financially independent young woman living in London to a demoralized barely-adult. I felt as if I was a teenager again, stripped of autonomy and independence, having to ask my parents for money, being trapped by Berkeley’s poor public transportation, and squeezed into a new city much smaller than I expected. My boyfriend in London and I tried to keep up our relationship, and he came to visit me, but 5000 miles was just too massive a gap. By the time I went back to England for New Year my first year I realized that what we had was gone. Whereas I had previously shared a sunny, spacious maisonette in a decent part of North London with a good friend, I was now stuck holed up in cramped university housing surrounded by fraternities with three other girls, two of whom hated each other’s guts. After my first year, I moved to San Francisco proper and rented my own studio apartment, but the only affordable neighborhood walking distance to the train to Berkeley was the very worst in the city, full of drug addicts who think nothing of using the sidewalk as a toilet and smoke crack in broad daylight. I left the pet bird I had raised from when he was a chick, who I had tamed and trained and taught to speak, with my friend in London, and he died much sooner than I expected. I gave up a lot to do this PhD, mentally telling myself it would pay off, and so long as I stayed patient and worked hard, I would find it was worth it. The problem is, that never happened. All I saw were the things I had given up, and no payoff. And not only was I not getting anything positive in return, I WAS getting a hell of a lot of alienation and frustration.

Furthermore, it’s no secret that California and I do not really get along. I came in with an open mind, but after living in London for so many years, and New York City before that, the Bay Area just can’t compare. I had reverse culture shock. It was the little things I missed, like being able to sit down and watch a Tottenham match, or wander through Finsbury Park, or sit outside the pub on a sunny afternoon, or get Polish food whenever I wanted it, along with the big things like my job and lifestyle and friends. But in addition to missing London, California in particular was also rubbing me the wrong way. San Francisco feels far dirtier than New York and London. Attitudes tend to be very knee-jerk good versus evil rather than realizing that the world is far more complicated than that. I’m liberal, but I quickly got tired of the constant conspicuous competition to see whose heart bleeds most. I got tired of people honestly thinking it is sexist to say “you guys.” I got very, very tired of everybody calling their crazy untrained mutt a “service dog” so that it can run around the supermarket or restaurant or clothing shop and nobody can say a word about it because OPPRESSION! Do you know that some people compost their own human waste out here in their gardens? Yeah. I got tired of the gourmet artisan kale chips in the food bank donation barrel when, for the same price, you can feed your family pasta for a week. In fact, I’m tired of kale altogether. Please stop talking about how wonderful your kale is. I honestly don’t care. Nobody outside the West Coast bubble cares about your kale.

I think most people apply to Berkeley because, in addition to its academic appeal, there’s something about the Bay Area lifestyle that really appeals to them. It wasn’t like that for me. I came to Berkeley because it is ranked one of the best sociology doctoral programs in the world, and that’s all. My interests didn’t overlap much with those of other students – hiking and skiing aren’t my thing, I didn’t want to Occupy Oakland or go on strike, Burning Man sounds like hell on Earth, and when I cook, I honestly don’t care about locally-grown and organic heirloom tomatoes that cost four times more than the regular ones. If that kind of stuff floats your boat, that’s fine, and you will love living in the Bay Area, but it’s really not for me. Not at all. It’s not my kind of place, and the way I see it, if I haven’t grown to like it by now, I never will. And that’s fine. The East Coast has room for millions of people like me, and there are plenty of people who love California and will be far happier here than I ever was.

Eventually, all the close friends I made were people from outside the university. We met through shared interests like music and dance. I didn’t know anybody here when I arrived. My nearest family member is in Ohio. My parents are on the East Coast, and even though we have a very close relationship, I don’t get to see them very often because it takes an entire day to get there and another day to return. In London, I had four bus lines stopping right across the street from my front door in addition to Underground and Overground lines only a short walk away. In Berkeley, I quickly realized that you are largely trapped without a car. Bus service is mediocre, and the BART trains even worse. I felt less safe walking around there at night than I ever had in proper big cities. In short, upon starting the PhD, my world suddenly became very, very small.

There are lots of things wrong with the social science PhD experience in America. You can poke around the internet and find plenty of articles about them, but for a quick run-down, I recommend the blog 100 Reasons Not to Go to Grad School. I didn’t find this blog until a few months ago, but upon reading it, I realized it was spot-on. I was relieved to find out I wasn’t alone in my feelings, and even more relieved to learn that it is possible to quit the PhD and have a bright future.

The penny dropped this past winter when I was supposed to be studying for my qualifying exams, the oral ones I would need to pass in order to officially advance to candidacy. After waiting months for professors to give me feedback on my reading lists, and finding the number of titles I would have to study increase exponentially, I tried to just sit down and read. And I couldn’t. For the first time in my life, I couldn’t make myself read a book. I have always been a voracious reader, and you would assume that because these books are within my areas of interest, I would devour them. But I simply couldn’t. My eyes scanned over the text over and over and I couldn’t finish the page because all the sudden I just didn’t care. For me, the joy had been sucked out of sociology. I didn’t want to spend any more hours poring over these texts. I simply couldn’t make myself do it. And that’s when I knew enough was enough.

Enough. That’s what I finally realized. I’d had enough of the whole damn thing. Had enough of feeling like I didn’t matter one bit, enough of having zero support. Enough of the frustration and alienation. Enough feeling like I was stagnating and getting absolutely nowhere. Enough of feeling like my priorities and attitudes were completely different from those of my colleagues. I always knew I wanted to be a policy researcher rather than a professor, and when I did more research and found out that having a PhD can actually work AGAINST you in non-academic job market, I realized I had little to gain and a lot to lose by staying in the program. I didn’t want to be miserable any longer and I needed to do something about it. So I decided it was time to quit.

Every day since I made that decision, I have asked myself, does it still feel like the right thing to do? And every day, I have answered in the affirmative.

I don’t see this as a failure. In fact, quitting was possibly the smartest thing to do. I only get one life, after all. I came into this at age 25. I’m 28 now. I’m not going to get those three years – those three years which could have been very economically productive – back. I want to eventually be somebody’s wife and somebody’s mother and it’s not going to happen in California. I don’t want to look back on my life in the future and find out I peaked at 22. It’s time to cut my losses.

Let’s get serious: a shocking number of PhD students contemplate suicide. In fact, a Berkeley study a few years ago placed the figure at roughly one in ten. I’m not surprised, because when the first time you find yourself failing is in your late 20s or early 30s, and you’ve invested several years of your life in something that you may never finish or which may not even amount to a job that pays a living wage, sacrificing all the trappings of normal adulthood, it is understandable that people become very depressed. It never got that bad for me, probably because the cultural mismatch between California and myself reminded me that things would get better as soon as I moved back to the East Coast, but it’s horrifying to know that so many of my colleagues may be despairing like that. If anybody in a similar situation is reading this: IT’S NOT WORTH BEING THAT MISERABLE. IT’S SIMPLY NOT WORTH IT. YOU DON’T HAVE TO LIVE LIKE THAT. It will be tough to leave, but you CAN do something else. You’re still an intelligent, capable person. It took a while, but I convinced myself that I could still accomplish meaningful things without being Dr. Kite. And above everything, I want to be really, really happy again. I want to go back to being the person I was back when I was feeding the birds in Finsbury Park and walking up the Tottenham High Road with a match ticket in my pocket.

Fortunately, the story has a happy ending for me. After several months of job-hunting and the associated existential crises (“What if I’m unemployable for life because I tried to do a doctorate?”), I scored a dream job. I am proud to say that next month I will be moving to Boston and starting a job as a Research Associate at Harvard. In my communications with the principal investigator and her grad student assistants, I have felt more valued in the past three weeks than I have in the past three years of study. They are warm, enthusiastic, encouraging people who believe in me, and I am going to succeed with them. I am grateful to them and I will not let them down. It’s so wonderful to feel appreciated again. Policy-relevant work at last! My enthusiasm has re-emerged and it can only get better. The nightmare is over. Boston is new to me, but my best friend from San Francisco used to live there and she is moving back this autumn. I can easily visit New York. I can’t wait to find my new apartment and start over as a career researcher. I will be fully financially independent. I will have a life that makes me happy.

I didn’t fail. I simply realized the PhD was not for me, not for my life. (Hey, the PhD works for a lot of people, and I wish them the best of luck and all success. I hope they are able to keep following their passions and hopefully get better support than I did.) I made the best decision for my circumstances, and now I’m going forward to greener pastures. If I had never tried, I would probably always be thinking, “Damn, I should have gone for a PhD. I wish I had done that when I had the chance.” Well, now I know it’s not for me, and I won’t have to wonder. And – Harvard! I still can’t believe I’m going to be doing research at Harvard. I am going to have a good salary! I am going to have savings! I am going to feel like a proper adult again! I’m not leaving Berkeley with my tail between my legs, but with my head held high.

I’m moving on up.


Dumbing Down

I just finished my first semester as a teaching assistant. It’s what I do in exchange for a fee remission and a small salary at the university. Now that final grades are turned in, there’s a little something I need to get off my chest.

Apologies to all those who have heard me rant about this already. Yep, it’s THAT topic.

During a discussion about War and Empire by Paul Atwood, I mentioned to students that I was surprised that the United States’ involvement in the Kosovo conflict was omitted from this book. This course was about research methods and I wanted them to think about how to evaluate books which make very strong arguments but leave out points that could introduce counterfactuals or undermine the author’s position. Atwood, starting with Columbus, goes through the history of what eventually became the United States, and argues that all wars in which it has been involved have been fought over expansion of empire – first territorial expansion, and then market power. He goes up to the invasion of Iraq, so I was surprised there was no mention of Kosovo whatsoever, even though the United States’ involvement was through NATO and not on its own.

Well, in both my classes, I had students who did not know what Kosovo was. Not just that there was a war, but that this was a place on the map.

This terrifies me.

Let me be clear, I am not blaming the students. If they could get into the top public university in their state and never encounter this, then there is something seriously wrong with the education system. These kids are smart, so something has gone wrong. The system has failed them, and inside every system are The Powers That Be, and The Powers That Be are people. A large group of educated, powerful adults has demanded so little out of public school students, that some of the best and brightest are unaware that Kosovo is a place. And obviously this is OK with them, or otherwise something would have been done about it.

We cannot blame all our shortcomings on budget cuts. It is a problem for all of us if American youth can reach 20 years of age and not find out, either through the classroom or newspapers or the simple independent thumbing-through of books that defined my childhood, where their country was involved in war during their lifetime. If this is happening, it is because of long-time, widespread failure of the people who are supposed to be upholding standards – who are supposed to be imparting knowledge to students.

What frightens me most of all are the excuses I hear people making for things like this. My colleagues in sociology say that it’s not a big deal. I think it is a VERY BIG FREAKIN’ DEAL INDEED if the people we are training to be tomorrow’s public leaders do not know these basic facts. “They were very young when it happened,” people tell me. I’m not buying it. Yes, they were young. But they’re not anymore. They should know the history of their own country. By way of comparison – I was in kindergarten when Desert Storm happened. I couldn’t have given you the history of Kuwait or the life story of Saddam Hussein, but I definitely knew at the time that Kuwait was a country, Hussein was a ruler, and a war was happening. And when I was school-age, I knew what it was. You don’t have to know every detail, but to not even know of the war’s existence? That’s inexcusable.

Another person admonished me with, “Julia, you can’t expect everyone to have had the same experiences as you.” Think about that for a second. I’m not supposed to expect students to know about a war their country participated in that happened during their lifetime. To me, this seems like a pretty basic thing. If I can’t expect this, then what CAN I expect them to know?

Then, even worse, I hear people say that we have to be aware that students from working-class backgrounds, of whom there are many in this university, do not read as much as their better-off counterparts and thus are less aware of current events. WHAT? Have a little respect for the fact that these students have brains – brains that got them into this prestigious institution in the first place. Respect their current abilities and their future abilities, and set standards high so that they can achieve. The school system has screwed them over their entire lives, so take a step toward fixing that and demand proficiencies. They can do it, and they’ll feel great about doing it, because they’ve been waiting their entire lives to be challenged. We can acknowledge that not all students are born with silver spoons, that many have had to struggle with difficult personal circumstances, unfair inequalities, and underfunded schools, without insulting them by lowering standards. When students are five or six years old, we believe all of them can achieve the highest success with the right support, encouragement, and challenges. We should not change our opinion when they become undergraduates assigned to our classes.

And don’t make blanket statements about what working-class students are like – they are a huge and diverse group. And there are things called public libraries. Lots of kids find their way into them at a young age, and yes, that includes kids from poorer families. I grew up solidly middle-class, but I was always at the public library devouring books because school didn’t challenge me. Your parent doesn’t have to have a lot of money to bring newspapers into the house or switch on the radio. To assume working-class students, at age 18+, don’t have the capabilities of wealthier students is downright insulting. If they’ve been swimming against the tide all their lives, then by college it’s time to give them some assistance, not accept this inequality as inevitable. Yes, there are structural inequalities that burden America’s poor and make it more difficult for kids to reach academic benchmarks, but that is entirely separate from the personal habits and cognitive skills students can cultivate WITH THE RIGHT TEACHING AND GUIDANCE. They won’t get anywhere if people say it’s OK for them to achieve lower standards. By the college level, the excuses need to end and the concentrated teaching needs to progress. Imagine how insulting it must feel for a college professor to assume you can’t do what the kid sitting next to you from Sherman Oaks or Redwood City can do, even though you both worked your way into one of the nation’s best universities. How insulting. How stigmatizing. How utterly ridiculous.

I read papers from students who are about to be handed their diplomas, and they don’t know the difference between “they’re,” “their,” and “there.” Are we really doing them a favor by letting them graduate without basic competencies? It’s NOT OK to shrug this off. We should feel ashamed of ourselves if a graduating student with English as a first language cannot coherently write an analytic paragraph. Making excuses – and I have heard plenty of them – will not land them the jobs they need to compete on a global scale. For every student with dyslexia, there are dozens who have simply been allowed to coast through their classes, believing that “good enough” writing is, indeed, good enough. No credible university’s teachers should accept “good enough” unless they are willing to state, hand on heart, that they are content with being part of a race to the bottom. If we are to be taken seriously as scientists, then sociologists must demand high standards from both themselves and the next generation of scholars. It may seem like just a small, nit-picky detail that I’m beating half to death, but it’s indicative of a culture that accepts mediocrity as just fine and dandy, and instead of making the effort to help students improve so that they can enter adulthood with the necessary skills, excuses them away and perpetuates the problem. These kids are obviously bright, so why don’t we demand more of them? If we say it’s OK that students don’t know about the war in Kosovo, then what next? It’s OK for them to not know the difference between Iraq and Iran? Or North and South Korea? See where this is going?

I feel like I’m from another planet sometimes. When I was a kid (which wasn’t terribly long ago), I learned lots of things outside the classroom. Truth be told, a lot of my teachers were incompetent dinosaurs who made no secret of the fact that they were unhappy with their careers. I had to do a lot of learning on my own. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have gotten remotely near where I am today. Yes, I was lucky in that my parents had resources. They had money to buy books, but they also took me to the library when I was too young to go there alone. They subscribed to a newspaper. All these things seem pretty basic. Do young people no longer even look at the front page of a newspaper whenever they pass a street-corner box? That costs nothing. Do they not watch the news? That pops up in public everywhere you go. Do they never get curious about the rest of the world and pick up books to learn more? I admit it, I was a weird kid, but I lived on books. I wanted to know everything about everything, and books were the way I could do that. The world outside my immediate surroundings fascinated me and I couldn’t wait to grow up and be part of it. Don’t people just a decade younger than me feel the same way, or was I really that odd?

And regardless of class, every teenager is exposed to loads of media – do news headlines never flicker by? How is it that they can know what Kim Kardashian is wearing, but not know about current events? I don’t understand. I do not understand this at all.

I’m just perplexed. Utterly baffled that I seem to be the only one out of my colleagues who is shocked and disturbed by the dumbing-down of education. And that’s what it is, dumbing down. There’s no better way to describe it. Low standards, low expectations, low demands. It was happening when I was a student (we were reading books that were marked fourth grade level when we were in eighth grade – and this was in what was considered to be a good public school), it’s still happening now, and if nobody gets really, really pissed off about it, then it’s only going to continue. If other PhD students aren’t bothered and I am, then clearly we have different values – and I honestly thought that at this point, all my peers would be as shocked by dumbing-down as I am. I see this process perpetuating itself throughout the next generation. It’s absolutely terrifying. I can’t repeat this enough – what I’ve just described should horrify everybody with the slightest interest in the future of the country. I honestly thought things would be different at the doctoral level. It seems they’re not.

I’m also at the point where I think social scientists are the number one reason why people don’t take social sciences seriously – it’s because we don’t demand enough of ourselves and our students. We’re too busy worrying about hurting people’s feelings to suggest that something might need improvement. We are the problem and we’re largely in denial. Every time we as educators make excuses for mediocrity in the students we are grooming to be tomorrow’s civic leaders, visionary entrepreneurs, and groundbreaking intellectuals, we degrade ourselves. How can sociologists lecture about community if we shirk our responsibility to those we are welcoming to it as independent adults?

And why is it that my colleagues admonished me for stating that addressing a mixed-sex group of students as “you guys” is not a big deal, but none of them agreed with my statement that it’s inexcusable for students to not know what Kosovo is? I seriously can’t be the only person who thinks priorities are a bit skewed. Is this what academia is coming to? How on earth do we expect to be taken seriously? We are the gatekeepers now – don’t we remember what it’s like to be bored and unchallenged and aching to learn more?

Look, nobody rises to low expectations. We have to demand more out of students regardless of their background. If we excuse and shrug off basic deficits of knowledge, then WE IN ACADEMIA ARE PART OF THE PROBLEM. If we have double standards applying to poorer kids, then we are perpetuating the exact things we so self-righteously claim to be working toward eliminating.

Stop making excuses. Start teaching. Get angry. Stop telling people like me that we need to be “more understanding” of mediocrity, and start raising the bar.

Serious Nerds Only: Qualifying Exam Reading Lists

In spring 2013 I’ll be taking my oral qualifying exams, which I need to pass in order to formally advance to PhD candidacy. The exams themselves are not a big deal, because your faculty advisors will not let you in to the conference room unless they know you’ll pass. The big deal is the sheer amount of preparation the exams require. Chalk these up as another reason why American PhDs take so long.

The rationale behind these exams is that you should be able to teach a complete undergraduate sociology class in each of three fields by the time you sit them. Everybody at Berkeley is required to take an exam in sociological theory, which is my NIGHTMARE. I am not a theory person. I am A Policy Person. The other two substantive areas are up to the student to decide. I chose stratification and political sociology, the latter with an emphasis on urban sociology. What follows is my reading list for political sociology. I have not yet drawn up the theory one because, like I said, NIGHTMARE. The stratification list needs a few additions. Anyway, here are approximately one-third of the books and journal articles I’ll be going through between now and April. I’ve already read some of them, but…well, I think I’m going to completely burn out what is left of my eyesight. And my bank balance. My poor, poor bank balance. If any of you reading this have been through the process before and you think there are any glaring omissions, please tell me. (Obviously, I can’t cover everything in depth because I would like to finish this PhD before I’m 50.) Otherwise, if you need me, I’ll be trawling the used offerings on Amazon and listening to John Head doing Shack’s “Cornish Town” solo over and over. The latter is waiting for you at the end of the list.


Essential Theory

Marx (1978) [1846]. “The German Ideology,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, Second Edition. New York: W.W. Norton.

Bourdieu. (1994) “Rethinking the State: Genesis and Structure of the Bureaucratic Field,” Sociological Theory  12:1-18.

Foucault. (1991) “Governmentality,” in The Foucault Effect. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gramsci. (1971) “State and Civil Society,” in Selections from the Prison Notebooks.

Lukes. (2005) [1974] Power: A Radical View. New York: MacMillan.

Weber, Max. 1958 [1919]. “Politics as a Vocation” “Bureaucracy,” and “Class, Status, and Power,” in From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. New York: Oxford University Press.


State Formation

Bendix. (1969) Nation Building and Citizenship. New York: Anchor Books.

Poggi. (1978) The Development of the Modern State: A Sociological Introduction. Stanford: Stanford University Press

Skocpol. (1979) States and Revolutions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tilly. (1992) Coercion, Capital, and European States. Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell.


Welfare States

Brady, Kiser and Beckfield. (2005) “Economic Globalization and the Welfare State in Affluent

Democracies, 1970-2000.” American Sociological Review 70: 921-948.

Esping-Andersen. (1990) The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Huber and Stephens. (2001) The Development and Crisis of the Welfare State: Parties and Policies in Global Markets. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Korpi and Palme. (1998) “The Paradox of Redistribution and Strategies of Equality: Welfare State Institutions, Inequality, and Poverty in the Western Countries,” American Sociological Review 63: 661-87.

Marshall. (1963) “Citizenship and Social Class,” in Class, Citizenship, and Social Development.  New York: Doubleday.

Pierson. (1995) Dismantling the Welfare State? Reagan, Thatcher, and the Politics of Retrenchment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Piven and Cloward. (1972) Regulating the Poor. New York: Random House

Quadagno. (1987) “Theories of the Welfare State.” Annual Review of Sociology 13.

Steensland. (2006) “Cultural Categories and the American Welfare State: The Case of Guaranteed

Income Policy.” American Journal of Sociology 111: 1273-1326.

Weir, Orloff, and Skocpol. (1998) The Politics of Social Policy in the United States.  Princeton:  Princeton University Press.

Policy Development

Campbell. (2004) Institutional Change and Globalization. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Dobbin. (1994) Forging Industrial Policy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Domhoff. (1996) State Autonomy or Class Dominance: Case Studies on Policy Making in America. Piscataway: Aldine Transaction.

Hall. (1993) “Policy Paradigms, Social Learning, and the State: The Case of Economic Policymaking in Britain,” Comparative Politics, 25(3):275-296.

Sewell, Jr. (1992). “A Theory of Structure: Duality, Agency, and Transformation,” American Journal of Sociology, 98(1): 1-29.

Weir. (1992) “Ideas and the Politics of Bounded Innovation,” in Structuring Politics; Steinmo, Thelen, and Longstreth (eds). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press .

Weir and Skocpol. (1985) “State Structures and the Possibilities for ‘Keynesian’ Responses to the

Great Depression in Sweden, Britain, and the United States,” in Bringing the State Back In. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

The Governing Process

Bartels. (2008) Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Dahl. (1961) Who Governs? New Haven: Yale University Press (selections)

de Tocqueville. (1969 ed.) Democracy in America. New York: Harper Perennial. (selections)

Mills. (1992 ed) “The Power Elite,” in Social Stratification : Class, Race, and Gender in Sociological Perspective, D. B. Grusky, ed., New York: Westville Press.

Schumpeter. (1962) Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, New York: Perennial. (selections)


Urban Sociology: Formation, Positioning, and Globalization

Hamnett. Unequal City: London in the Global Arena

Hannerz. Exploring the City: Inquiries Toward an Urban Anthropology

Logan and Molotch. (1987) Urban Fortunes: The Political Economy of Place. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Sassen. Cities in a World Economy

Sassen. Global City: New York, London, Tokyo.

Wirth.  (1938) “Urbanism as a Way of Life.” American Journal of Sociology 44:1-24.

Park and Burgess. (1967)[1925] The City. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Urban Sociology: Crisis and Social Problems

Gamm. (1991) Urban Exodus. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Harvey.  (1973) Social Justice and the City.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Harvey. (1978) “The Urban Process under Capitalism: A Framework For Analysis.”  International Journal of Urban and Regional Research.  2:101-131.

Massey and Denton. (1993) American Apartheid. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Sampson. (2012) Great American City.Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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Urban Sociology: Community and Spatial Outcomes

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Sampson and Raudenbush. (1999 ) “Systematic Social Observation of Public Spaces: A New Look at

Disorder in Urban Neighborhoods” American Journal of Sociology 105, 3:603-651.

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Ravetz. (2001) Council Housing and Culture: The History of a Social Experiment. London: Routledge.

“Close your eyes and come and cross my street, and I will take you there if you will come with me.” That’s a great line, everyone. That. Is. A. Line.

What is it good for?

Right now I’m teaching Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiment to my undergrads. Because it’s a methodology course, not a social psych one, an important point I want to drill into their heads is how empirical studies come from the need to address gaps in theory, and then after they’re completed you have to tie your results back into theory so that your work has a meaning beyond the specific context in which it took place. It’s not about some people in a lab in Connecticut, it’s about applications to everyday situations, it’s about agentic states and binding factors, it’s about being conditioned from early childhood that Bad Things Happen when you disobey authorities. I was diagramming everything on the chalkboard, and when I finally brought it all back to the beginning I felt the way gymnasts look when they stick a landing. Done. Nailed it. I saw a few lights go on in student heads, and that’s the fulfilling bit – knowing that you’ve just made what seems like a fuddy-duddy experiment from the early 1960s seem relevant and important in the year 2012.

The things you read about in textbooks can sometimes seem so divorced from current reality that I almost can’t blame undergrads for not being intrigued. But the wonderful thing about sociology is that problems obviously aren’t going to be solved any time soon, so there’s always space for applications to the world around you. Milgram devised his experiment in the wake of the trials of Nazis who argued that they were only following orders when they killed millions of Jews, Roma, disabled people, and others. He aimed to show that these weren’t “monsters” so different from you and me, but that everyday people can be led to do things that go counter to their personal morality because the pull of staying obedient to authority is just that strong. That’s still relevant every single day of every single human life on this planet, from the tiniest act of a rebellious child to the mass murder of war zones.

Yesterday I saw the Man Ray & Lee Miller exhibit at the Legion of Honor here in San Francisco. To be honest, I wasn’t familiar with the work of either of them. I knew of Man Ray, but had never heard of Lee Miller (and had assumed she was a he – oops). While the two of them are known for pioneering surrealist work, I was far more impressed by Miller’s photography of World War II in Europe.

This is the daughter of the mayor of Leipzig. She and her parents, aware that the Allies were going to take the city, killed themselves with poison. Her skin looks so perfect because the shelling around the city hall caused white plaster dust to fall all over the bodies. I have no qualms about viewing the corpses of people whose ideology insisted that my people were life unworthy of life. For all I know, her father sent thousands of Jews to tortured, agonizing deaths. I know that the “right thing to do” is to never rejoice in anyone’s death, but, hey, I got a disturbing and quiet sense of satisfaction from seeing Miller’s photos of how the twisted and hateful ideology they followed turned about and lead these people – who once held the power to dictate life and death – to kill themselves. They ended up in the same place as the people they persecuted: dead and gone. Mind you, they got to choose their time and manner of death. I can look this corpse and shrug. So you killed yourself because you were on the losing side? Your parents were going so you did, too? Whatever, you got what you deserved. Hardly the most enlightened viewpoint, I know. Hardly the nuanced it’s-more-complicated-than-that thinking you’d expect from a sociologist, I know. Tough.

This is a dead Dachau guard in a canal. Again, it’s interesting that I can look at this corpse and not feel any negative emotion. I know, I know, I’m supposed to be all enlightened from studying experiments like Milgram’s, but…nah. He got what he deserved. And even after death, he gets more dignity than the people he watched over in the death camp. How many pictures have I seen of dead Jewish men, women, and children thrown in heaps, in mass graves? They had their heads shaved, they were starved, they were stripped of their uniforms and left undignified in the open air. This man at least got to keep his clothes on for the camera. Miller’s photo made me think of how the piles of corpses in the death camps were newsreel fodder, none of them individuals, just statistics. Are we supposed to care about one man after all that? When the tables are turned and the oppressor becomes the victim, it’s slightly jarring, but death is death – sucks to be you. The Jews were made anonymous in the camps, but then again so were the thousands of rank-and-file Nazis carrying out the atrocities. The only differences were status and power – but those make a hell of a huge difference. (And even that’s an understatement. All sociology is the study of status and power.) The way I see it, if my people had to suffer those indignities, why the hell should I care about their killers getting a taste of the same? I don’t care about this man as an individual. I don’t want to be diplomatic and thoughtful and think about the evidence that shows how and why people obey orders to harm others – though I know I bloody well should, it’s only what I’m building my entire career around. And I usually take so much pride in practicality.

We all think that we would be the person to stand up to the experimenter and say, no, I’m not doing this, there’s no way in hell I’m going to push that button and shock a man who has never done anything to hurt me. Milgram showed, by controlling for loads of variables, that we probably wouldn’t be so special and heroic. Any one of us could become that “monster.” For this reason, I should probably have more empathy/sympathy for people like, say, German civilians who got swept up in the racist fervor of their time. They were just like all of us, right? We could have been in the same situation, right? The evidence is right here in front of me, and I’m big on evidence-based policy, right? But I’m going to be a total unreasonable hypocrite because that reminds me I’m only human. I have no sympathy.

In college I really enjoyed the poets of the First World War, like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. Poetry for them wasn’t some abstract concept, but a way to deal with the atrocities taking place right in front of them. The men with their guns, identical and anonymous in uniform, all capable of taking the lives of people whose names they would never know, were still emotional people needing to cope with extraordinary times. I never want to read another Robert Frost poem, but I could happily devour loads more Owen for the same reason I’d read a novel: it shows me a life I don’t lead, and (thankfully) never will.

Let the boy try along this bayonet-blade
How cold steel is, and keen with hunger of blood;
Blue with all malice, like a madman’s flash;
And thinly drawn with famishing for flesh.

Lend him to stroke these blind, blunt bullet-heads
Which long to muzzle in the hearts of lads.
Or give him cartridges of fine zinc teeth,
Sharp with the sharpness of grief and death.

For his teeth seem for laughing round an apple.
There lurk no claws behind his fingers supple;
And God will grow no talons at his heels,
Nor antlers through the thickness of his curls. 

Arms and the Boy by Wilfred Owen

Let’s go back to the beginning…and tie it all into Milgram. In one of the many variations of his experiment, he found that if the “victim” and the subject were forced to sit close together, the subject would be more reluctant to administer the electric shock. If the victim was in another room, the subject was more obedient to the commands to continue shocking the victim even if he was pounding on the wall or screaming. There’s nothing quite like seeing the harm people do to each other right up close. In modern warfare, we launch missiles from miles away, we drop bombs from planes that are well clear of the area by the time the damn thing explodes, we use drones so that there is essentially no single human being to blame for the carnage. We don’t stare our enemy in the eyes the way the men in the trenches of the First World War had to do, but soldiers still come back traumatized. We still recognise death and suffering, even when it’s diminished by time or distance. Maybe not as much as we should do, maybe not enough to stand up and try to stop anything, but we’re not untouched. We’re only human. And we need documentarians, either with pictures or with words, to make us stare these things in the face and remind us how close we are to our most depraved, violent impulses.

More later. I’m off to bed.

See also Philip Jones Griffiths

Chicago, Maps, and a Mess

Today I arrived in Denver for the 2012 annual meeting of the American Sociological Association. I’m presenting a paper on drivers of neighborhood satisfaction in London regeneration zones this Saturday. It’s my first time in Denver, and so far, this is my impression of the city: take the Chicago Loop, shrink it both in spread and height of buildings, and abandon a chunk of it, and that’s Denver. Disclaimer: I’ve been here six hours, and my taxi took me through one hell of a rough patch. That being said, ranch dressing makes sense here. The amount I put on vegetables for dinner was truly sickening and I am proud.

I’m also finishing up Robert J. Sampson’s fantastic book Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect, which is the product of years of meticulous, large-scale research into the persistence of poverty and inequality. This is the kind of book that proves social science is a field as worthy as any other. I won’t summarise it here (GO READ IT), but I want to mention that I hold a special place in my heart for Chicago because it was where I first really became fascinated with cities in and of themselves – the start of an obsession that has led me to become an urban sociologist. I lived there for a good chunk of my childhood. All the neighborhoods Sampson mentioned are familiar, if not from actual memories then at least by name.

Chicago, despite being the third largest city in the United States, has a parochial feel to it. People cling to their neighborhoods. The city has 50 official administrative wards, each represented by an alderman who may or may not be entirely corrupt, but there are 77 “community areas,” and, depending on who you ask, nearly 200 informally designated neighborhoods. Here’s a map of the community areas. Bored in school, I memorized this map and loads of more detailed ones to the point where I was able to write out the names of 308 Chicago streets entirely from memory (and not the numbered ones, those don’t count. I mean the names that sing in your head and which tourists don’t see: Ponchartrain Boulevard. Throop Street. Menomonee, Oleander, Armitage, Seely, Ainslie, Kedvale, Caldwell, Argyle, Lamon, Laramie, Larabee, Montrose, Rosemont, Kinzie, Kedzie, Stony Island, Cottage Grove, Washtenaw, Racine. Commerce Parkway. Solidarity Drive.) Yes, I was a very bored child in school. But the point is, these places in Chicago had an intrinsic meaning in their names. For me, they represented a hell of a lot more than just the boundaries drawn by the street grid. They were each their own self-contained world.

Unfortunately, the downside to this compartmentalization is that, in Chicago, it translates to extreme racial segregation. Sampson repeatedly illustrates this and shows it to be at the heart of why so many Black Chicagoans live in the kind of poverty that barely touches even low-income White people. I lived in a neighborhood that was very White, with a significant Asian minority. My mother, a native New Yorker who never lived outside the five boroughs until she was 30, couldn’t believe how segregated it was. A working-class woman from a Polish family, she had worked as a nurse alongside women from Jamaica and Haiti in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and now she was sending her kids to a primary school that had one Black student among over 300 White and Asian. She never liked Chicago and was glad to leave. As a kid, whenever I spoke with a little too much of the nasal honking the city is known for, she would quickly correct me and make me pronounce the word properly – that is, with anything other than those Midwestern vowels. Chicago would not become my voice. I’d have to get that somewhere else.

Our sister school on the West Side was entirely Black. When the students came to ours for a day, they spoke in awe about how clean our bathrooms were, how we actually had paper towels and working locks on the doors. You know, the basic things American schoolkids should take for granted. We thought it was strange then, but hey, we were kids – we understood that they were poor and we were middle-class, that they lived West and we lived North, they were Black and we weren’t and these things weren’t a coincidence, and even at a young age we could put two and two together. But look at the data – especially Sampson’s data about where people move – and it’s clear it will take a lot more than twinning schools and throwing kids together for a couple of days each year in order to address the fact that Black and White so rarely interact meaningfully in Chicago.

Having been educated in both the US and the UK, it’s amazing how uniquely American this kind of segregation is. In Britain, a lot of people have a hard time believing that so many explanations really do boil down to the implications of race in America. “Why is everything about race?” they ask me, and then Americans ask me, “Why are Brits so obsessed with class?” While racism is of course an issue in the UK, the extent and institutionalized degree of it there was never so vast as in the United States. I truly can’t overstate that.

I’m 27 now and I still love maps. Once upon a time, a big glossy one of Chicago neighborhoods hung on my wall. The colors were arbitrary – pinks, yellows, blues, greens, all the names in the same even hand, not the slightest hint of the implications behind each demarcated place name. There’s a picture of me standing in my bedroom on a council estate in West London, and taped to the wall behind me, blurry but recognizable, is the entire London tangle of Tube and rail. Now in my San Francisco apartment there’s an old style New York subway map tacked on the wall down the little hall from where pre-war North London bus routes hang in a sturdy frame. Crouch End, Wood Green, Finsbury Park, Hornsey, Harringay – all the places you’ll go along those red lines, all the places I’ve been more times than I can remember. The buses will take you there and then who knows what you’ll find, what you’ll get up to by yourself? Then down on the floor are the great big wooden panels where I’ve been painting and sculpting and suspending scraps of maps that I’ve transfered onto sheets of acrylic and cut up with a Stanley knife until they’re just how I want them, trying to make a bit of art out of my life so far. Trying to convince myself I still have a bit of those places in my heart even though I’m not walking those streets and may not be again for a long time.

Having a specific spot in space is important to me, as is knowing exactly where I stand – literally – so that I can never be put in the vulnerable position of not knowing where I’m going. When you name a place and claim it as where you’re from, you pick up more than an address. You get a bit of tangible history, and automatically you’re a player in that story. There are some places where I’ve spent years living but which don’t feel like part of me as well as spots I’ve merely passed through in the grand scheme of things but which somehow have gotten into my bones.

I could never go back to living in Chicago. By that I mean, I’m not willing to do so. When I think of Chicago I recall small-mindedness, corruption, segregation, and really REALLY cold winters with flat grey landscapes that could not have been bleaker if they’d been illustrations from a Victorian novel.I remember how cruelly people treated my mother when she was nothing but kind to everybody. I remember how my family was resented and scorned for no fault of our own. I remember finding out that all those years when I’d been cheering on my older brother from the sidelines when he played soccer, other children’s mothers were laughing at “the Jew.” I remember wanting to get out of there so, so badly, and never looking back. Maybe some people could choose Chicago over New York or London, but I’m not one of them. I don’t want to be the capital of the middle, I don’t want to be the cozy warm heart of things – I want to be in the great big mess teetering on the edge. That being said, Chicago’s lack of pretension was refreshing sometimes. It knew it couldn’t compete with New York or Los Angeles, so it didn’t try. Nelson Algren said there was never a city so real, and I’d have a hard time arguing with that. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may find lovelier lovelies, but never one so real. But it’s not my reality now. Chicago was someplace I had once, and it was useful, but it outlived that role for me personally and so I’ve folded it up and put it away. I have no family there. Almost all my friends are elsewhere. It’s a place I can read about and shake my head and understand, but it’s not me.

Some people have perfect pitch. Others have uncanny photographic memories. I have perfect direction. Wherever I go, I always know which way is north. I always have at least that much of an idea where I am going and where I have been.

Bystanders in Academia

Interesting piece in the Guardian last week about photojournalists who document violence, disasters, and tragedy in general, and do not intervene:


This is a huge ethical quandary in sociology, albeit one that I’ve seen shoved under the carpet on many occasions. When I do bring up the moral dilemma, I’m often shot down quickly by people who sound more than the slightest bit defensive about their work and their reasons for doing it.

And they do have a point. When doing ethnography, you’re supposed to try your best to not really be there. You want to be less than a fly on the wall, because flies are pests that people stop doing whatever it is they’re doing to shoo out the window. To intervene in the lives of your subjects is to essentially invalidate the reason you’re there. If your work is to have any kind of impact, it needs to be done properly. In our constant attempts to be taken seriously as a science, we strive for as much objectivity as possible. The only problem is, we’re not dealing with bacteria in petri dishes, we’re dealing with people. People who, more often than not, have been forced to live under appalling circumstances that the majority of academics could never, ever accept as their own lot in life.

We convince ourselves we’re doing it for the greater good, that without our trained academic minds documenting and interpreting all this human misery, nobody else would be aware of what’s going on, and therefore nothing will eventually change without us. While this is certainly true to an extent, it also has more than a faint whiff of narcissism.

And I don’t always buy this argument, because, like so much else in life, it comes down to money.

Social scientists become rich and famous – well, as rich and famous as you can get in academia – by documenting and interpreting human misery. You will eventually leave your ethnography site and go back to your comfortable home and cushy tenured job, whereas your subjects cannot. You are, in essence, selling their life experiences every time you publish a book based on ethnographic research. But those royalties and advances don’t go into their pockets. They go into yours. They fund your lifestyle, pad your CV, win you entry into higher eschelons of prestige. Your subjects give their stories, the raw material you use, away for free when in truth they’re a valuable commodity. You’re going to write a book that will lead to acclaim and economic gain for yourself, and you wouldn’t have been able to do it without, in essence, using people who can’t sell this form of capital.

You’re damned either way. If you pay up you assuage your conscience, but you end up with bad science that you might as well not haved pursued in the first place. If you do nothing, you have to live with that guilt. A lot of people don’t have a problem with that guilt, or they don’t feel guilt at all. After all, it’s not like people are going to heap it upon you in academia when they’re applauding your work (and the finished product is, indeed, YOUR work). We don’t have discussions like this in academia because we’d probably have a collective nervous breakdown when we realise that we, too, can be every bit as exploitative of poor people as the institutions and individuals we make a living out of criticising. Because we have a few crucial letters after our name, somehow we become exceptions to the rules we claim to detest.

Good for those people who can do it without ruffling their conscience. But it leaves a horrible taste in my mouth. I can’t help but think of Kevin Carter, the South African photographer who won the Pulitzer Prize for an image of a starving Sudanese girl being watched by a vulture. People DID raise the question of what, if anything, he did to help, and he got slated quite brutally for it. Earlier in his career, whilst documenting attacks on black people under apartheid, Carter wrote the following regarding his position as the one who documents but doesn’t get involved:

I was appalled at what they were doing. I was appalled at what I was doing. But then people started talking about those pictures… then I felt that maybe my actions hadn’t been at all bad. Being a witness to something this horrible wasn’t necessarily such a bad thing to do.

And he does have a point. We all can’t be saints, and sometimes it would be downright stupid to intervene in a situation where you would either put yourself in equal danger or even make things worse. Sometimes the most useful thing you can do is raise awareness of situations that the average person – and the not-so-average powerful person who actually has the ability to enact political or any other kind of change – may not know exists.


Carter killed himself less than a year after receiving the Pulitzer.

This isn’t straightforward, and it shouldn’t be. But we should at least be discussing this frankly in academia, not deluding ourselves into thinking it’s as simple as claiming we’re in it for the greater good.

I will happily raise a stink about the ethics of ethnography no matter how many times people try to dismiss it. This needs to be discussed even if it makes us feel a little less comfortable about our livelihoods. We are not special. We are subject to the same rules as everyone else.

Maybe we don’t think about this as often as we should in sociology because the harm doesn’t seem so obvious. It’s not like it’s Kitty Genovese and the bystander effect all over again, it’s not like the “necklacing” deaths Kevin Carter documented, it’s not like someone is screaming for help in the street and you’re just shrugging and walking by. But maybe there is something to be said for the insidious effects of letting harm happen because you’re too far away to see its gradual but constant effects. As ethnographers, isn’t that exactly what we’re supposed to be drawing attention to – the not-always-blatantly-obvious processes that eat away slowly and fade into the background to the point where the people who have the ability to enact change don’t even notice they exist? (This is a big reason behind why I want to eventually work in policy, but that is another massive essay…) The small, invisible insults can be the most pernicious as well as the hardest to eliminate because people are quite happy not seeing them.

In my opinion, Rebecca Skloot (not a sociologist, but a brilliant researcher and all-around interesting person) did it right. A science journalist, Skloot turned her long-standing curiosity about the person behind the HeLa line of cells into a book that explored not only the life of HeLa herself and her descendents, but also shone a light on the uncomfortable intersection of racism and medicine with consequences that persist today. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks became a bestseller, and a major part of the book’s intrigue was how a woman whose cells became the basis for a multi-billion-dollar biomedical industry had children who couldn’t afford basic health care for diseases strongly linked to the poverty in which they lived.  Skloot set up the Henrietta Lacks Foundation to provide financial assistance to Lacks’ descendents. A percentage of profits from book sales go directly into the foundation and are used by grant recipients to pay for educational and medical expenses.

As Skloot documents throughout the book, it was a difficult and humbling experience to enter the world of Henrietta Lacks’ family. After a lifetime of being deceived and taken advantage of by white experts who claimed to be working for the greater good (sound familiar?), the black Lackses understandably didn’t want any more exploitation. It took ages for her to gain entry and trust. Skloot dealt with this firsthand, and while I certainly can’t speak for her, I’m sure it influenced her perspective on the role of the documenter vis a vis her raw material. The Henrietta Lacks Foundation is an attempt to right a wrong by ensuring the family gets at least a fraction of the financial benefit they should have reaped a long time ago were it not for the arrogance of experts. Yes, Henrietta Lacks’ cells have led to amazing discoveries and medical treatments which definitely benefit the greater good – but at the same time, a warm and fuzzy feeling doesn’t put food on the table, and a lot of people got VERY rich and famous, however indirectly, off the Lackses. It’s only fair they get some money in return – at least enough money to meet the expenses that people in academia take for granted.

Henrietta Lacks’ cells were taken without her consent, without her family’s knowledge. At least ethnographers are bound by institutional review board constraints to make what they’re doing obvious to their subjects. And subjects do always retain the autonomy to tell the ethnographer to get lost. Maybe we need to be told that a bit more often. We are not special, not excepted from any rules, just because we’ve jumped over some academic hurdles in order to get offices, however tiny, somewhere within the ivory tower.