The discipline of sociology has grappled with several overlapping issues regarding the purpose and utility of our profession beyond its intellectual pursuit. Debates about the social impact of sociology have been historically centred on three questions relevant to applied sociology – which I define here as sociology conducted outside universities for particular clients. These questions are: sociology for what?; sociology for whom?; and sociology for where? In today’s post, I will discuss the who, what and where of sociology, before introducing a fourth question that is so taken-for-granted we don’t spend much time talking about it in any concrete way. That is: how do we actually do sociology outside traditional academic research? We assume sociologists can go out into the world and apply their training to different problems. But what kind of problems do we work on and how do we actually carry out the work in different places? I argue that applied sociology is set up as the “other” of academic sociology because of the context in which we practice our craft. This stops sociologists from engaging with one another effectively, and hinders the transformational work we do separately with our respective audiences.
I seek to build upon the framework discussed in this post for a series exploring the practicalities of doing sociology outside academia. I hope that the ideas explored here and in future posts can open up dialogue about how to better address collaboration between academic and applied sociologists.
The 11th of October 2012 was the inaugural Day of the Girl. This year, the focus was on the eradication of child marriage. Around the world, 70 million girls were married before they reached the age of 18. My post today explores how the interrelated issues of gender, education and child marriage might be addressed by sociology. My focus is primarily on girl brides. While young boys are also married, the research I review shows that the adverse effects of child marriage have chronic health and socio-economic impact on young girls. The “value” attached to child brides refers to the cultural and economic issues underlying child marriage. Young girls are married off according to dominant beliefs about preserving women’s “honour” (that is, ensuring virginity before marriage), as well as the costs of raising girls. Child marriage has been linked to people trafficking in extreme situations. In most other cases it maintains the status quo in poor or underdeveloped areas, where economic deprivation is used to justify men’s dominance over young women’s reproductive and life choices. In order to eliminate child marriage, communities need to be shown practical demonstrations that delaying marriage increases everyone’s welfare. Continue reading →
This story is engrossing: Maud Allen was a Canada-born dancer who found fame in Germany in the early 1900s. She performed in the Oscar Wilde play, Vision of Salome, famous for “the dance of the seven veils.” When Allen was in her 20s, her brother was executed for killing two girls. She changed her name to escape this notoriety but later found herself the subject of infamy, drawn into a litigation case defending her name against charges of “sexual perversion.” Allen’s artistic sensuality and the fact that she was a lesbian were weaved into a conspiracy plot involving the highest office of British parliament. The Daily Mail recently reported on Allen’s life as a new play is being produced in San Francisco which is based on this salacious court case. Allen’s story makes an excellent historical case study of the criminalisation of femininity and homosexuality in Britain at the end of World War I. I discuss the contradictory meanings of Allen’s dancing and her embodiment of the character Salome, a figure that has come to represent the dangerous qualities of female heterosexuality. The cultural significance of Allen’s dancing and her court case takes on multiple meanings in light of Allen’s reality as a lesbian woman in the 1920s. I use Allen’s story to examine the history of the clitoris and its cultural mystique in relation to cis-women’s* bodily experiences of pleasure in connection to dancing and sex. Continue reading →
Painting by Syed Ruhollah Musavi. Photographed by Newtown Grafitti.
By Zuleyka Zevallos
Australia’s refugee policies have been increasingly problematic since the 2001 lead up to the Federal election, which was focused on “the problem of boat people” and the so-called “Tampa Boat Crisis”. A new program that links asylum seekers with Australian families is causing some controversy, but it promises to be a more humane alternative to off shore detention of refugees.
In August 2011, the media beamed images of refugees being rescued off an overcrowded, sinking fishing vessel that was stranded six hours away from one of Australia’s offshore territories, Christmas Island. The Tampa was the ship that answered their distress call for rescue.
The then-Liberal government and mainstream media interpreted the images of women and children seemingly being plunged into the sea for rescue as proof that people smugglers were manufacturing sympathy for people seeking to enter Australia under a refugee status. Sociologist Katharine Betts argues that support for immigration had been decreasing steadily since the late 1980s whilst support for border control had been rising. The Tampa crisis seemed to intensify public anxiety about border protection. Australian sociologist Peter Gale argued that the subsequent public debates were bound up with racist fears of Muslim migrants. Other advocates and academics further note that such xenophobia intensified after the September 11 attacks in the USA. (Betts disputes such assertions, arguing that the Tampa debate reflects public desire for national cohesion.) Continue reading →
Last year, I read about anthropologist Jeremy Narby’s participant observation field research with the Ashaninca, an indigenous group living in the Peruvian Amazon. His research is detailed in the book, The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge, as well as the follow up,Intelligence in Nature. I’ve thought a lot about this research since. Narby’s research focuses on the way Western scienceconstructs medical knowledge in ways that do not accommodate mystical experiences from Other cultures. Western medicine has come to adopt the Ashaninca’s knowledge of rare plants, as they have been proven to positively affect health. Nevertheless, Western scientists refuse to take into consideration how the Ashaninca gain this knowledge because it is derived through drug-induced hallucinations. This is in spite of the fact that these hallucinations come from the same plant ecosystem that Western science is eager to plunder. How do we reconcile this knowledge divide? Narby argues that the Ashaninca’s understanding of plants and ‘alternative medicine’ must be understood in concert with their pathways to this knowledge. This includes the hallucinations which are used to commune with nature.
In his interview with The Best of Our Knowledge, Narby reflects on his research amongst the Ashaninca (Asháninka or Asháninca). Narby talks about how taking the hallucinogen plant ayahuasca changed his ideas about consciousness and Western knowledge. Narby conducted the research as part of his PhD dissertation at Stanford University in the USA. He describes himself as a former ‘Marxist anthropologist’ who was unable to make much sense out of his field research as a postgraduate student. In the end, Narby did not use the ayahuasca data in his thesis. It took him eight years to return to his data, but he hopes his analysis will show Western societies a new way to think about human perception. Continue reading →
I tweeted about this earlier. Then I felt annoyed all over again, so I thought I would write this post. One of the most frustrating and circular arguments in the history of modern families rears its ugly head yet again in Australia. The Australian Senate has received a submission by 150 medical professionals. These medical doctors have misused scientific studies to argue that children raised in same-sex families are worse-off than kids who are raised by heterosexual parents. This argument has been refuted by robust empirical studies within sociology and other social sciences for the past couple of decades.
The Australian Psychological Association has refuted the claims made in the Senate submission, arguing that the most comprehensive, longitudinal data show that children raised in same-sex families are not disadvantaged due to their parents’ sexual orientation. In some cases, the data show the opposite – and it all goes back to the economic and social resources available to parents. This includes emotional support from supportive networks. The biggest disadvantage to children raised in lesbian, gay, transsexual, queer and intersex (LGBTQI) families relates to how societies or communities fail to accept and integrate the diverse reality of modern families.
In praise of public science, I want to draw connections about why race and minority studies are central to challenging the way general audiences are presented with scientific “facts”. Below is part of an article by students from Northwestern University, responding to a critique of the utility of African-American Studies. The article was published by The Chronicle. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, La Tasha B. Levy, and Ruth Hays defend the anti-intellectualism stance put forward by by blogger Naomi Schaefer Riley, who derides the importance of African-American Studies. I love seeing students take up the challenge of public social science. Read the whole thing in The Chronicle. You’ll be so glad you did. The authors feel forced to defend why the higher education sector needs courses dedicated to anti-racist, post-colonial ways of knowing.
As black people living in the United States we do not need conspiracy theories or white bogie men to explain the disparities that separate and distinguish the life chances of white people compared to those of African Americans, even with a black president sitting in the White House. We understand that these conditions are driven and shaped by racism and real white men who exercise power and influence in the economic, social and political institutions that govern this nation… Our work is not about victimization; it is about liberation. Liberating the history, culture and politics of our people from the contortions and distortions of a white supremacist framework that has historically denied our agency and subjectivity as active participants in the making of the world we live in.
For the past 40 years, black studies has been instrumental in transforming higher education into a more inclusive, competitive, and rigorous intellectual enterprise. This is a fact. The contributions are irrefutable. But the extent to which Riley chose to assail black studies and the scholarship of black-studies doctoral students is indicative of the desperate tactics commonly used by media pundits. What is she so afraid of?
DNLee in the field. Via Scientific American.
This piece made me think of DNLee’s wonderful post in Scientific American, which I’ve shared elsewhere. DNLee offers a wonderful, reflexive piece about the racism she experiences in the field as a black woman researcher. DNLee is a biologist who studies animal behaviour in a rural town in the USA. Continue reading →
International students represent a large economic and international relations investment for Australia. Australian universities are increasingly relying upon overseas students for their revenue, but these institutions are not adequately addressing the special learning, linguistic, cultural and religious needs of these students. Despite their Australian education, international students experience various difficulties in finding work in their field of study after they graduate. Poor English-language, communication and problem-solving skills are the biggest obstacles to securing ongoing and satisfying jobs. Employer biases regarding international students are equally a problem. This paper provides a demographic context of the international student population in Australia and it also addresses the gaps impeding their full social participation in Australian educational institutions. This paper argues that a stronger focus on the socialisation of international students is likely to increase their educational and career satisfaction. Educational providers would better serve international students by focusing on practical learning, career-planning and reinforcing the social and cultural skills valued by Australian employers.
Via Wiki: Detail from Benjamin West’s The Death of General Wolfe (1771). This painting is an example of an idealised vision of the “noble savage” in North American art.
By Zuleyka Zevallos
I wanted to do a follow up on my post from a couple of months a go, on Hollywood racism. I analysed George Lucas’ claim that big Hollywood studios were reticent to back his film Red Tails because there were no white leading actors in the script. I used the idea of the Magical Negro Trope to explain how mainstream Hollywood films stereotype African-Americans as either thugs or benevolent, self-sacrificing figures who exist only to teach the white character a life-affirming lesson. I showed that this trope extends to other non-white minorities. Today I want to focus on the Noble Savage trope, which is a term describing the over-simplified stereotype of Indigenous people in film. I will discuss Avatar as a pre-eminent example of the Noble Savage, but I will focus on gender and sexuality issues. Avatar is about to screen on Australian free-to-air TV. Although many, many people have already seen this film, the incessant TV advertising reminds me that it’s high time I release this post!
Today I will draw a comparison between Avatar and other films that depict Indigenous women as savage conquests. Women are rarely cast in complex roles in big-budget Hollywood releases. They are usually romantic or sexual diversions to help portray the male lead in a sympathetic light. Non-white women are even more simplified – especially in stories involving Indigeous cultures. Non-white women exist as Magical Pixie Conquests: they are painted as feisty, though ultimately submissive, pawns that help white male characters to dominate the “native tribe”. The fictionalised version of the “Pocahontas” story epitomeses how Hollywood both fetishes Indigenous cultures and perpetuates patronising postcolonial fantasies. Continue reading →
Today I spent a great deal of time playing around with the Vatican’s virtual tour of the Sistine Chapel. For an art and sociology of religion nerd such as me, the 360 degree view of the Chapel was loads of fun. Nevertheless, this got me thinking about the history of Christian art and, in particular, Michelangelo’s contribution to Western ‘high art’ culture. I am interested in how Western European art of the Renaissance period set up women as The Other of men, and how this gender binary continues to influence dominant discourses of divinity within mainstream Christianity.
Elizabeth Dodson Gray offers a feminist critique of the history of patriarchal depictions of divinity. She argues this form of patriarchy is best exemplified by the system of meaning behind Michelangelo’s design of the Sistine Chapel. Dodson Gray’s central point about ‘the process of naming the sacred’ helps to unpack the narrative behind the Sistine Chapel’s most famous work. Dodson Gray argues that throughout most of modern history, men had greater power in constructing discourses of The Sacred. As a consequence, symbols of God were constructed as synonymous with being Male. Until women began offering feminist critiques of religious signs and texts, religious imagination largely ignored women’s knowledge. Continue reading →