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Ask the Sociologist: Feminist Sociological Theory and Conflict Theory

A woman yells with her fist in the air

Dear Sociologist,

Feminist sociological theory is said to be a sub-area of conflict theory and not a theory in its own right; would this be an accurate statement?*

Sincerely,

Conflicted over Conflict Theory

Dear Conflicted over Conflict Theory,

Most sociologists will agree that feminist sociological theory is a theory in its own right, but this agreement largely depends on how one is defining ‘theory’ in relation to a host of other relevant terms, such as a school of thought, paradigm and/or critical perspective. An adequate answer to your question requires delving into these definitional debates where sociologists, and scholars in general, attempt to create conceptually distinct categories demarcating, for example, what counts as theory versus critical point of view (but not necessarily a full-fledged theory per se).

The answer to your question is in three parts: What is theory? What is the type of relationship between conflict theory and sociology? And, what is feminist sociological theory and where is it situated in relation to conflict theory?

There is a point of view that we can negotiate or redraw categorical boundaries based on new empirical evidence, normative concerns and/or analytical usefulness. The terms we use in our debates  such as ‘theory,’ ‘paradigm,’ or ‘critical perspective’ are not exclusive categories. For example, there are theoretical traditions, theories and critical perspectives that fit neither of these categories perfectly but, rather, seem to share characteristics from more than one concept. This latter observation is likely at the heart of your question. This essay is a brief sketch of this contested terrain in response to the question.

Theory & Conflict Theory

In general, a theory of anythingeverything is a testable explanation of how the world operates. In a very basic sense, you use theory everyday as you navigate the nuances of social interaction in our natural world.

We rely on social theory to help us understand “… the social organization of society, the behavior of people and groups, (social theory) explains why structures take the forms they do at various historical times as well as in local situations, and how and what kinds of changes occur” (Collins 1990: 70).

A woman yells with her fist in the air

Source: pixabay.com

 

Sociology textbooks tend to divvy up approaches to sociological analysis along the lines of structural functionalism, conflict theory and symbolic interactionism, and the term ‘conflict theory’ houses a variety of approaches that share a set of general propositions in analyzing the social world. These shared philosophical and theoretical orientations towards the social world is what we might call a ‘paradigm’or school of thought. Specifically, paradigms are “a set of assumptions, theories and perspectives that make up a way of understanding the social world” (Ferris & Stein 2016:18). Conflict theory, can be understood as “a general approach to the entire field of sociology that focuses research on stratification and hierarchic organization as key to explaining all sociological phenomena…” (Collins 1990:72).

Feminist Theory & Feminist Sociological Theory 

So, where does feminist sociological theory fit into all this? We have to unpack the term ‘feminist-sociological-theory.’ Are we talking about feminist theory in sociology or feminist correctives to classic and contemporary sociological theory? Would one be more appropriately considered ‘theory’ as opposed to the other? And, if so, can we locate a distinct line that separates these categories?

The term ‘feminist theory’ is a broad term used to refer to a variety of writing and thinking across the disciplines that, while united in their opposition to women’s oppression, differ not only in their views of how to combat that oppression, but even in their conception of what constitutes oppression in contemporary society and who belongs (or doesn’t belong) under the category of ‘women’ (McClure 1992). For example, is it liberating to shield oneself from objectifying gazes through certain forms of dress, or use one’s body and sexuality unabashedly as a source of empowerment in a society that historically oppressed and controlled the feminine form?

Does this category of ‘women’ extend only to those assigned as females at birth? Or, does it extend to those who identify as women later in life? Does one need the formative experiences of growing up ‘female’ to understand what it means to be a “woman” within an oppressive patriarchal system? These debates, as well as approaches to women’s liberation, have produced many orientations and sub-categories of feminist thought (socialist feminists, radical feminists, black feminists, Marxist feminists, Third world feminists, liberal feminists among others).

If we accept opposition to women’s oppression as a  unifying theme and foundational  to all feminist theories, sociological and otherwise, we might conclude that feminist sociological theory does in fact belong under the genre of conflict theory since stratification and hierarchical organization seems inherent to its very raison d’être. But, this is beside the point. This classification still fails to settle what exactly is being signaled when sociologists add the qualifier ‘feminist’ to sociological theory?

Feminist Sociological Theory Or Not?

Feminist scholars within and outside of the discipline have critiqued classic and contemporary sociological theory for its gender-blind spots, androcentric biases and oppressive prescriptions. As a result, feminists have prescribed a host of corrective actions for these theoretical deficits. Depending on the critique leveraged, several approaches have been developed by feminists to right the wrongs of sociology’s misogynist past.

On the one hand, many feminist scholars in sociology see the project of feminist sociological theory as “… a systematic and critical reevaluation of sociology’s core assumptions in light of the discoveries being made within another community of discourse—the community of those creating Feminist theory” (Lengermann 1990). For example, many classic sociological theories rest on implicit assumptions of human nature to provide an interpretation of observations of the social world and make predictions or prescriptions based on those assumptions.

If individuals are understood as selfish, autonomous actors looking to maximize individual gain while minimizing costs as opposed to highly empathetic and interdependent social creatures, these assumptions are going to produce very different theories (or models) of the social world (England 1989).

At the same time, feminist thought is far from homogenous and involves several approaches to sociological theory that might be perceived as falling short of theory-creation. For example, many feminist empiricists do not take issue with social theory’s base assumptions and methodological practices but, rather, see women’s exclusion from empirical observation as bad practice in research.

Finally, feminist sociological theory ranges from the old ‘add-women-and-stir’ approach where little changes except women’s numerical inclusion as an essential part of society and social phenomena to questioning and radically transforming social theory’s base assumptions and methodological practices.

Both approaches to sociological theory would likely be considered ‘feminist sociological theory,’ but they differ in the degree of autonomy in relation to traditional sociological theory (consider the gaze of feminist empiricists versus standpoint feminists versus postmodernist feminists.)

*Question was edited for clarity.

References

Collins, R., 1990. Conflict theory and the advance of macro-historical sociology. Frontiers of social theory: The new syntheses, pp.68-87.

England, P., 1989. A feminist critique of rational-choice theories: Implications for sociology. The American Sociologist20(1), pp.14-28.

Ferris, K. and Stein, J., 2016. The real world: An introduction to sociology. WW Norton & Company.

Lengermann, P.M. and Niebrugge-Brantley, J., 1990. Feminist sociological theory: The near-future prospects. Frontiers of social theory: The new syntheses, pp.316-344.

McClure, K., 2013. The issue of foundations: Scientized politics, politicized science, and feminist critical practice. In Feminists theorize the political (pp. 359-386). Routledge.

Further reading:

Anderson, Elizabeth, “Feminist Epistemology and Philosophy of Science”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), forthcoming URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2019/entries/feminism-epistemology/>.

Kuhn, T.S., 2012. The structure of scientific revolutions. University of Chicago press.

do Mar Pereira, M., 2017. Power, Knowledge and Feminist Scholarship (Open Access): An Ethnography of Academia. Routledge. (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/feminism-epistemology/).

Amber C. Kalb

Return to May 2019 Issue

 

Evicted at the National Building Museum

"All this suffering is shameful and unnecessary, because it is unnecessary, there is hope. These problems are neither intractable nor eternal. A different kind of society is possible, and powerful solutions are within our collective reach." -Matthew Desmond

In April 2019, I saw the Evicted exhibit at the National Building Museum. I came to the exhibit having read the book by Matthew Desmond, which has become one of the most influential books on poverty and homelessness in the last few years. I have also read the conversations by housing activists, scholars, and policymakers both praising and critiquing Desmond’s work and his Lab.

As I reflected on the ways data was turned into a comprehensive story of our national eviction problem, what stood out to me most were qualitative stories used to illuminate the personal experience of losing your home.

The first section of the exhibit is set up like a house, with symbolic data visualizations covering the sides. A set of keys to break down women evicted by race, with four of 60 white women, five of 60 Hispanic women, and 12 of 60 Black women experiencing eviction. And, as you walk inside the home, there’s a video playing on loop of one woman’s story that truly pulls you in. The curator’s choice in using stories of employed persons became a call to introspection about our own vulnerabilities.

Two years ago (The Sociologist January 2017), I spoke with Liane Scott, Grassroots DC founder and local activist, about public housing in the District. When I asked her how she came to fight for housing rights, she revealed that she does not necessarily see herself as any more removed from the fight for housing than those who cannot currently afford the private market. She stated, “I related more than I’d like to the struggle for housing and the fear of losing it.”

"All this suffering is shameful and unnecessary, because it is unnecessary, there is hope. These problems are neither intractable nor eternal. A different kind of society is possible, and powerful solutions are within our collective reach." -Matthew Desmond

Photo by Emily McDonald

 

The exhibition features audio from Unfurl Productions, who recruited persons battling eviction cases in Camden, New Jersey. The woman that stood out most to me was a single mom and social worker. She faced eviction, despite her full-time government employment status and education. She was experiencing a not-so-unfamiliar cut in her hours at work and had no means to garner extra income. The social worker who helped her fellow community members find the social safety net in difficult times now needed help.

The exhibition harnesses the imagination by inviting the public to empathize with the housing precarity in our prosperous country.

By Emily McDonald

Return to May 2019 Issue

Framing Slavery at Mount Vernon

A sign that reads "It was during the transfer of supplies that 17 of Mount Vernons enslaved workers boarded the Savage in hopes of finding freedom with the British. A few months later, 7 of the enslaved people were returned to the estate follwoing the British surrender at Yorktown.

Tucked away from D.C.’s busy beltway lies Mount Vernon, the former estate of the first President of the United States. The 500-acre property was inherited by George from his father in 1761 and was purchased by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association in 1858 to save the estate from ruin. Today, Mount Vernon is operated by the Association as an historic site that includes museums, Washington’s presidential library, and vintage farmsteads. But, the museum at Mount Vernon lightly touches upon the legacy of slavery in Washington’s personal and professional life, and the topic is obscured in ways that sit uneasily.

Museums and historical sites like Mount Vernon are purveyors of information that frame how we view our social world. The ways in which slavery is presented at Mount Vernon matter ideologically in terms of what Eduardo Bonilla-Silva describes as “expressions at the symbolic level of the fact of dominance” (2014:74). If we consider this definition of ideology, then we can consider how slavery is expressed symbolically at Mount Vernon. In a dominant symbolic expression, history is framed in “set paths for interpreting information” (Bonilla-Silva 2014:74). It is therefore important that we “undertake an exacting political and ethical critique of…ideologies of difference” (Mbembe 2017:177) as we follow tours and signposts.

At Mount Vernon, it would be easy to imagine a visitor who only thinks of slavery briefly, who “hears so little that there almost seems to be a conspiracy of silence; the morning papers seldom mention it, and then usually in a far-fetched academic way, and indeed almost everyone seems to forget and ignore the darker half of the land, until the astonished visitor is inclined to ask if after all there is any problem here” (DuBois1994:110). Upon entering the estate, visitors are ushered into a room where an introductory film called We Fight to be Free is screened. The film is an unapologetic tribute to Washington, who is portrayed as a morally impeccable revolutionary hero (Van Oostrum 2006).

The role of slave labor in contributing to Washington’s vast wealth—one of the richest presidents in United States history—goes mostly unmentioned. Our tour guide described the present-day estate as a “working plantation” with no sense of irony as to what a working plantation would entail if it were to include period-relevant slaves.

Progressing further along the tour, the absence of slavery becomes louder as we read maps that breezily describe the location of slaves’ quarters alongside prized fruit gardens. We climbed staircases to peer at Martha Washington’s closets and hear about her shopping habits.

A sign that reads "It was during the transfer of supplies that 17 of Mount Vernons enslaved workers boarded the Savage in hopes of finding freedom with the British. A few months later, 7 of the enslaved people were returned to the estate follwoing the British surrender at Yorktown.

Photo by Margaret Zeddies

 

The pockets of information where slavery is discussed are fragmented: ensconced in a museum deep in the main building, on a placard outside the boating dock, and in an isolated reconstruction of a slave’s cabin. The museum exhibit Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon (MacLeod 2016) provided personal details of slaves who were kept at Mount Vernon, but kept them at a distance from Washington’s narrative. Mount Vernon’s official website does contain a special section on slavery with over two dozen entries on subjects like Slavery at Mount Vernon, and Martha Washington as a Slaveowner (Mount Vernon 2019b). The archival nature of a website cannot be expected to be reproduced in an hour-long tour.

Perhaps most interestingly, the term “enslaved peoples” (used throughout the literature, displays, and guided tours at Mount Vernon) was deliberately chosen over the word “slaves.” A display panel in the Lives Bound Together exhibit addressed the word choice. The language, it states, was used intentionally so as to invoke the “humanity” of the slaves (MacLeod 2016). However, as Mbembe has problematized, the “idea of a common human condition is the object of many pious declarations. But it is far from being put into practice” (2017:161). Instead, a political economy approach that considered the role of slave labor in Washington’s wealth, for example, might provide an ontology that acknowledges both the labor of slave bodies and their exploitation. For, “the term ‘Black’ was the product of a social and technological machine tightly linked to the emergence and globalization of capitalism” (Mbembe 2017:6). This might even provide more support for the argument for reparations.

The guided tour ended in Mount Vernon’s kitchen where slaves labored in the pre-dawn to keep the residents fed. During my visit, one tourist marveled at the cook’s ability to rise so early. The tour guide missed an opportunity to inform guests why a slave (such as Washington’s personal favorite chef, Hercules, who later attempted escape) would be obliged to rise early. Instead, the tour ended, and the questioning tourist who exited through the kitchen’s back door had the same fate as DuBois’ “casual observer visiting the South” who “notes the growing frequency of dark faces as he rides along, – but otherwise the days slip lazily on, the sun shines, and this little world seems as happy and contented as other worlds he has visited.” (1994: 110).

References

Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 2014. Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America. 4th ed. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Du Bois, W.E.B. 1994. The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Dover Publications.

MacLeod, Jessie, curator. October 1, 2016-September 30, 2020. Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Mount Vernon, VA: Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center.

Mbembe, Achille. 2017. Critique of Black Reason. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Mount Vernon. 2019a. “Hercules.” Retrieved May 1, 2019 (https://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/hercules/)

Mount Vernon. 2019b. “Slavery.” Retrieved May 1, 2019 (https://www.mountvernon.org/george-washington/slavery/)

Van Oostrum, Kees. 2006. We Fight to be Free. DVD. Los Angeles, CA: Greystone Films Inc.

By Margaret Zeddies

Return to May 2019 Issue

The Ultimate Project: Erik Olin Wright and Real Utopias

A portrait of Erik Olin Wright smiling.

In January 2019, Dr. Erik Olin Wright, Vilas Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison lost his battle with leukemia. A Marxist sociologist and one of the most influential theorists in the discipline, Dr. Wright’s work focused largely on our social and economic condition. His work engaged with real world challenges such as poverty. Professor Wright also problematized theories of class structure and posited alternatives to institutions like capitalism.

In Envisioning Real Utopias, he asked the provocative question: what  would a world guided by alternatives to our existing social institutions look like? In his own words, the project sought “to join together discussions that take seriously the ideals of a just and humane world and ask what kinds of real institutions could embody these ideals and how can we transform the world in which we live to better approximate these ideals?”

Although utopias are imagined spaces of perfection, rarely did Dr. Wright’s work stay in the realm of utopia. One of the things that made his work so consequential was that he successfully showed us how ideas that might seem impossible in our society could in fact be quite pragmatic. His project was theoretically provocative and sophisticated, as well as empirical. To prove the pragmatic potential of real utopias Dr. Wright walked us through examples from all over the world such as participatory budgets in Porto Alegre, Brazil, the Citizen Assembly for Electoral Reform in British Columbia, Wikipedia, and the idea of unconditional basic income.

Of these examples, most of us are probably best familiar with Wikipedia and the peer-to-peer, collaborative platform it represents. Dr. Wright, however, takes it a step further, making the case for how this platform represents a “new form of non-capitalist, non-market production in the digital age” (Wright 2011:40). In other words, the platform represents a real utopia—an empirical alternative that is “organized around horizontal reciprocities rather than hierarchical control” (Wright 2011:40). It is hard to imagine a platform where anyone can feel empowered to participate and contribute while still managing a relatively high level of procedural efficiency, information accuracy, and organization.

Yet, this is exactly what we have in this new digital encyclopedic form. Another example of a real utopia which we might be less familiar with is the practice of participatory budgets that take place in Porto Alegre, Brazil. It is a great example of the process in a city of approximately 1.7 million people where anyone can expect to vote and contribute to the city’s budget via neighborhood assemblies.

Exit road sign that reads "Utopia"

Source: pixabay.com

 

A couple of years ago, Dr. Wright visited George Mason University and I had the opportunity to hear him speak at a two-day workshop entitled “Amplifying the Concept of ‘Well-Being’: Public and Global Dimensions.” Dr. Wright spoke about real utopias and their centrality in a much larger intellectual project, that of emancipatory social science. I remember being both confused and intrigued by the idea. It was only my second year in my graduate program and I was still trying to find my footing. A key strength of Dr. Wright’s work, however, is that no matter your discipline, research focus, or social problem of interest, you could always find applicability in his work.

The idea of emancipatory social science as an intellectual pursuit and imperative has followed me over the years. In Envisioning Real Utopias, Dr. Wright argues that scientific knowledge necessary for overcoming human oppression “faces three basic tasks: 1) elaborating a systematic diagnosis and critique of the world as it exists; 2) envisioning viable alternatives, and 3) understanding the obstacles, possibilities, and dilemmas of transformation” (Wright, 2010:10). This is a key framework that guides my work focused on the future of criminal justice reform.

A portrait of Erik Olin Wright smiling.

Erik Olin Wright. Source: University of Wisconsin-Madison, Department of Sociology

 

In my work I often struggle with the idea of whether the American criminal justice system could in fact be a sort of real utopia someday. By this, I mean could we actually have a system of justice where justice is administered in a fair and equitable manner? The desire for a “just system of justice” rings loud but so does the doubt that this could ever be. Yet, in the real utopias that Dr. Wright introduced us to in his decades long project, we see how the seemingly impossible can in many ways be possible as well as pragmatic. If we could envision a real utopia of criminal justice, what might such a system look like? How would it need to transform? How would it operate? I don’t have answers to these questions. The contributions of Dr. Wright are without a doubt significant, and his passing is a great loss for the discipline. I am convinced that his project will continue to inspire the work of generations of social scientists in many ways. It certainly has inspired me.

References and Notes

Wright, Erik O. (2010). Envisioning Real Utopias. New York, NY: Verso.

Wright, Erik O. (2011). “Real Utopias.” Contexts, 10(2):36-42.

1. https://www.pbs.org/video/university-place-envisioning-real-utopias-ep-137/

By Maria Valdovinos

Return to May 2019 Issue

Ask the Sociologist: Unsure about Subcultures

Dear Sociologist,

Are ethnic groups considered to be subcultures?*

Sincerely,

Unsure about subcultures

Definitions

Ethnic groups are generally distinct groups that “are fundamental units of social organization” that include “members who define themselves, or are defined, by a sense of common historical origins that may also include religious beliefs, a similar language, or a shared culture” (Stone and Piya 2007).

Subcultures play an important role in articulating an identity, producing a sense of belonging, and influencing members to consider their relationship to mainstream society; however, subcultures are different from largely recognized identity categories such as ethnicity. While an ethnic group may be a minority group, this does not mean that they are a “subculture” as the term has been understood.

Haenfler (2014) offers the following working definition of subculture: “A relatively diffuse social network having a shared identity, distinctive meanings around certain ideas, practices, and objects, and a sense of marginalization from or resistance to a perceived ‘conventional’ society.” In addition to these characteristics, subcultures may also share a specialized type of vocabulary, style and music, subcultural history or lore. By this definition, social groupings, social movements, countercultures, new religious movements, gangs, and fandoms, may have subcultural elements.

A malleable term

The malleability regarding how we think about the definition of subculture leaves a lot of gray space. So much so, post-subcultural studies have questioned if “subculture” is even a helpful analytical category. Yet, other scholars still very much conceptualize subcultures as a valuable way of understanding shared creative and meaningful responses to a particular social circumstance and have worked to develop clearer and more complex understandings of “subculture” that include a more nuanced engagement with axes of identity and a perspective that adapts to changing social, media, and political landscapes (for examples see Haenfler 2014 and Jensen 2018).

Early studies of subcultures focused on youth, crime, deviance and immigration; and studies of subcultures in urban areas (especially) have unveiled sites and profiles of ethnic diversity, class struggle, social disorganization and social contradictions.

Source: Wikimedia Commons. This image shows the subversive use of products. A safety pin is used as an earring by members of some punk subcultures.

 

Later studies understood youth subcultures as creative and meaningful sites of symbolic resistance to social order, often conveyed through activities, stylistic practices, and language. Subcultures are also theorized as an answer to a shared situation (Jensen 2018: 408). Subcultural studies tell us something about social, cultural, and political power relations, what is constructed as “deviant” in society, and how and why people identify with certain groups in various contexts.

Finally, while socially constructed categories for understanding ourselves and our world (such as race, ethnicity, gender, class, and sexual orientation) are largely thought of as something different from the conception of subculture, the axes of identity and subcultures are tied to inequality and shape the lived experiences of people. These categories frame how individuals think about themselves in relationship to society.

Additional Resources

Subculture: The Meaning of Style (1979): Dick Hebdige’s study of British youth subcultures after WWII ▪ Feminism and Youth Culture (1991): A book by Angela McRobbie that focuses on girl subcultures ▪ Subcultures: The Basics (2014): A book by Ross Haenfler that maps the history of subcultural studies, develops a working definition of subculture, and engages with the concept’s complexity ▪ “What is Ethnicity?” (2019): A YouTube video by Origin of Everything’s Danielle Bainbridge (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E1AY95Z64gg)

*Question was edited for brevity and clarity.

References

Haenfler, Ross. 2014. “What is a Subculture?” in Subcultures: The Basics. London: Routledge.

Jensen, Sune Qvotrup. 2018. “Towards a Neo-Birminghamian Conception of Subculture? History, Challenges, and Future Potentials.” Journal of Youth Studies 21(4):405-421.

McRobbie, Angela. 1991. “The Culture of Working Class Girls.” Pp. 35-60 in Feminism and Youth Culture: From “Jackie” to ‘Just Seventeen.” Boston, MA: Unwin Hyman.

Stone, John and Bhumika Piya. 2007. “Ethnic Groups.” The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology.

By Briana Pocratsky

Return to May 2019 Issue

Sugar Puffs or Frosties? Bandersnatch, Interactive Content, and Active Engagement

a child watches television

Over the winter break, I spent time with loved ones and we collectively watched holiday staples for the umpteenth time. I also organized my holiday around my Netflix queue. Given the degree of social media buzz surrounding recently released Netflix Originals, it seems that I was not alone. Everywhere I went online, I encountered people talking about Bird Box, a post-apocalyptic Netflix Original film starring Sandra Bullock. Another widely discussed Netflix film was Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.

Black Mirror

Netflix describes Black Mirror as a “sci-fi anthology series [that] explores a twisted, high-tech near-future where humanity’s greatest innovations and darkest instincts collide.” The title of the series alludes to this convergence of humanity and technology. According to Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker, the title refers to the reflective black screens of smartphones, televisions, tablets, and laptops.

Similar to The Twilight Zone, Black Mirror episodes give you that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach and often suggest that we’re doomed. Black Mirror first aired in 2011 on Britain’s Channel 4, before Netflix picked-up the series and produced the third and fourth seasons in addition to the latest installment, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch is a standalone film that Netflix categorizes as “interactive content,” or “a fun new way to experience Netflix” in which users “can make choices for the characters” and shape the narrative (Netflix 2018). Netflix describes the film this way: “In 1984, a young programmer begins to question reality as he adapts a dark fantasy novel into a video game. A mind-bending tale with multiple endings.” The viewer plays a role in the fate of the film’s protagonist.

The viewer is presented with choices throughout the narrative that result in various endings. Viewers are prompted to select one of two available options on-screen. The content of the timed prompts ranges from which cereal the main character will eat for breakfast to deciding whether the character will “bury” or “chop up” his dad’s body. The film is (unsurprisingly) self-aware, and there are various narrative branches, endings, and over 300 minutes of footage (check Reddit for flowcharts, Easter eggs, and theories) (Kleinman 2018).

This presentation of narrative and interactivity isn’t a novel concept (some overlapping and related examples include gamebooks, hypertext fiction, interactive DVDs or videos, video games, and “gamification” in general). More specifically, Bandersnatch’s basic premise that allows the user to select an option out of two possible choices in a film or television show, which affects the narrative in some way, has been around for decades.

For example, Kinoautomat, “the world’s first interactive cinema,” debuted at the 1967 International and Universal Exposition in Montreal. Chris Hales (2015:38), who specializes in “the interactive moving image,” explained how this pre-digital interactive cinema worked.

“It involved live actors performing in tandem with a projected nonlinear film entitled One Man and His House in a custom-built 123-seat cinema with a red and green push button box attached to every seat. At several times in the performance audiences were offered a choice of two narrative alternatives and could push either button to indicate their choice, the sequence corresponding to the majority vote being subsequently projected.”

Recent examples of interactive film and video have utilized advances in technology. Late Shift (2016), which marketed itself as “the world’s first interactive cinematic movie,” asked movie-goers to influence the storyline by voting for options using their phones (Farokhmanesh 2017).

Another recent example is Youtuber Markiplier’s “A Date With Markiplier” (2017) which, like Bandersnatch, allows the user to make a decision between two choices throughout the narrative. Bandersnatch is significant because it presents what Netflix refers to as “interactive storytelling” to millions of users on a streaming platform. This has implications for a highly individualized and private media stage that reaches large numbers of people where any and all interactivity could be collected as user data to gauge preferences and get to know the user better.

Netflix Programming

Currently, Netflix has over 137 million (paid and free trial) subscribers worldwide (Disis 2018). The streaming service is known for offering a variety of programming that attempts to tell largely untold narratives and tap into the sociocultural moment while suggesting titles to users based on preference.

On the surface, Netflix’s venture into interactive storytelling content is an example of a streaming service trying to cultivate a new market. However, interactive content could also provide another way for Netflix to better understand its users beyond television and movies: “Where the company previously focused its data gathering on the ways users engaged with its content—what they watched, when, and for how long—this new data is indicative of real-world decisions like product preference, musical taste, and engagement with human behavior.” (Damiani 2019, para. 3)
Interactive content could also allow for programmatic product placement in the future (Damiani 2019).

a child watches television

Source: www.pixabay.com

 

Bandersnatch isn’t Netflix’s first go at interactive storytelling. In 2017, Netflix formally announced its launch of interactive storytelling content, starting with children’s programming. On interactive storytelling, Netflix said “the objective has been to bring something completely new that pushes the boundaries of storytelling and the way you engage with it” (Netflix 2017, para.9).

Netflix currently holds five titles categorized as interactive content: Puss in Book: Trapped in an Epic Tale, Buddy Thunderstruck: The Maybe Pile, Stretch Armstrong: The Breakout, Minecraft: Story Mode, and Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. Four out of the five possible titles are children’s programming, but the streaming service has promised more interactive content.

Interactive Storytelling = Active Engagement?

While researching Bandersnatch, I regularly came across the idea that interactive storytelling implies that the consumer is somehow more actively engaged than a “passive” consumer using non-interactive content.

While selecting one option out of two possible choices is “interactive,” does this by default make for “active” audiences? The presupposition of a passive audience is problematic.

Research on fandoms has shown that fans actively engage with media by consuming, reinterpreting, and producing cultural texts (see Jenkins 1992). Bandersnatch is certainly another potential way to engage with media, but it doesn’t by default suggest increased active engagement simply because it is interactive.

reflective black computer and tablet screens

Source: www.pixabay.com

 

While I watched Bandersnatch and made choices throughout the film, the writings of theorists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer ([1944] 2007) came to mind. I started to wonder whether, like the character in the film, I wasn’t really in control of the narrative. Maybe popular culture and technology have given us the distraction of false choices regarding who was really in control of the narrative? Is the illusion of choice the film’s point?

I’m left with more questions than answers after watching Bandersnatch. If this format becomes more popular, what are the implications for collective viewing, whereby audiences experience the same narrative? Should we think of interactive storytelling primarily as narrative, gameplay, or something entirely different?

As advancements in technology continue to offer new and more sophisticated ways for users to interact with media, it is important to keep a critical eye on how companies such as Netflix collect and use user data. It is not clear to us yet whether interactive storytelling will catch on, but Netflix may already know the answer.

References

Adorno, Theodor and Max Horkheimer. [1944] 2007. “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.” Pp. 405–15 in The Cultural Studies Reader, edited by S. During. New York, NY: Routledge.

Damiani, Jesse. 2019. “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch Could Become Netflix’s Secret Marketing Weapon.” The Verge, January 2.

Disis, Jill. 2018. “Netflix Now Has More than 137 Million Subscribers.” CNN Business, October 16.

Farokhmanesh, Megan. 2017. “Late Shift Is Another Step Toward the Merging of Movies and Video Games: Will the Future of Theater Be on Your Phone?” The Verge, October 15.

Hales, Chris. 2015. “Interactive Cinema in the Digital Age.” Pp. 36–50 in Interactive Digital Narrative: History, Theory and Practice, edited by H. Koenitz, G. Ferri, M. Haahr, D. Sezen, and T. İ. Sezen. New York, NY: Routledge.

Jenkins, Henry. 1992. Textual Poachers. Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York, NY: Routledge.

Kleinman, Jake. 2018. “Reddit Already Knows How to Get Every Ending in ‘Black Mirror Bandersnatch.’” Inverse, December 30.

Netflix. 2017. “Interactive Storytelling on Netflix: Choose What Happens Next.” Netflix Media Center. Retrieved (https://media.netflix.com/en/company-blog/interactive-storytelling-on-netflix-choose-what-happens-next).

Netflix. 2018. “Interactive Content on Netflix.” Netflix Help Center. Retrieved (https://help.netflix.com/en/node/62526).

By Briana Pocratsky

Return to January 2019 Issue

The Legacy of Devah Pager

I was walking into my kitchen to get a cup of coffee, head deep into my phone, scrolling through tweets, when I learned of Devah Pager’s death. A wave of sadness immediately came over me as I encountered a series of tweets from the academic community mourning her loss.

Although I never met Devah Pager personally, her body of work documenting the impact of the criminal justice system on the labor market opportunities of individuals after incarceration has had a profound impact on my own work studying the dynamics of reentry. Before learning of her untimely passing, I thought surely I would meet her someday, at some conference, somewhere.

Unlike many scholars who make their key contributions to the field over the course of their entire professional careers, Dr. Pager began hers with a landmark contribution which she produced as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. At a time when many considered the playing field to have leveled or were beginning to level for both whites and blacks, a young Devah was able to show in her dissertation project, “The Mark of a Criminal Record,” that this was not the case. Pager used an audit study design within a larger experimental design in which she sent young men, both white and black, to apply for entry level jobs while varying their criminal histories. She set out to answer the question: All else being the same, to what degree does a criminal record affect employment opportunities in the United States?

It turns out, profoundly. What Dr. Pager found was that a job seeker with a criminal record had worse job prospects than a job seeker without a criminal record. This finding is to be expected. However, she also found that when race was a factor in the job prospects of applicants, the impact was especially significant for black job applicants. Specifically, Dr. Pager found that a white job applicant with a criminal record had a 17 percent callback rate while a black applicant with a criminal record had a much lower callback rate of 5 percent. Her finding that white job seekers with criminal records stood a better chance of getting a job callback than black job seekers without criminal records [1] took many by surprise. Had it been bogged down in jargon and technical writing, this finding could have easily been overlooked in a 250-page dissertation report.

Her simple and yet elegant prose combined with rigorous scientific methods painted a compelling picture of the racial disparity and social inequality associated with a criminal conviction in the United States, and many took notice.

Source: Effect of a criminal record. Devah Pager 2003. “The Mark of a Criminal Record.” Focus, 23(2): 44-46.

 

Devah Pager’s dissertation was selected by the American Sociological Association as the best dissertation of 2003, and her findings also helped shape the public policy debate on race and the criminal justice system for the next two decades. In the years since her dissertation was published, Dr. Pager’s collective body of work has raised the consciousness of scholars and policymakers regarding the stratifying effects of the criminal justice system, and in particular, the stigma of a criminal record. Her work has encouraged the design of policies to minimize these effects, including a four-year plan proposed in the mid-2000s by the Bush administration to help the formerly incarcerated get work [2] and later, “ban the box” [3].

It has also had the sobering effect of showing us just how entrenched these inequalities in fact are. Yes, everyone may deserve a second chance but can everyone get one? In the late 2000s she replicated the findings of her initial dissertation project, this time in New York City [4]. The year before she passed, Dr. Pager and colleagues showed that despite decades of interventions to level the playing field, “there had been no change in hiring discrimination against African Americans over the past 25 years” [5].

Dr. Pager was the Peter and Isabel Malkin Professor of Public Policy and Professor of Sociology at Harvard University. She passed away at the young age of 46 after a battle with pancreatic cancer.

Devah Pager. Source: Harvard University Department of Sociology.

 

References

[1] Pager, Devah. 2003. “The Mark of a Criminal Record.” American Journal of Sociology, 108(5): 937-975.

[2] Kroeger, Brooke. 2004. “When A Dissertation Makes a Difference.” The New York Times, March 20.

[3] Irwin, Steven. 2018. “How Not to Hire: Ban the Box.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, November 19.

[4] Pager, Devah, Bruce Western, and Naomi Sugie. 2009. “Sequencing Disadvantage: Barriers to Employment Facing Young Black and White Men with Criminal Records.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 623(1): 195-213.

[5] Quillian, Lincoln, Devah Pager, Ole Hexel, and Arnfinn H. Midtboen. 2017. “Meta-Analysis of Field Experiments Shows No Change in Racial Discrimination in Hiring Over Time.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, September: 1-6.

By Maria Valdovinos

Return to January 2019 Issue

Diversification: Conference on Gender Equality Reimagines the Purpose of Economics

women at a conference

In Grossman Hall in the law building of American University, was a sea of diverse women chatting with one another, laughing, snacking on cheese cubes and patiently waiting in their seats for the main event to begin. From undergraduate to senior scholars wearing yoga pants or pant suits, a diversity of women seemed to be represented among this energized crowd.

On November 2, 2018, I was one of the presenters at “Pathways to Gender Equality: Economic Gender Analysis Addressing Current and Future Challenges,” a conference hosted by the Economics Department of the American University in Washington, D.C.

women at a conference

Concurrent Session 1.2: Gender and Development attendees. Source: https://www.american.edu/cas/economics/pathways/

 

The opening and closing plenary consisted of an all-star group of women economists including Cecilia Conrad, Bina Agarwal, Janet Yellen, Nancy Folbre, M.V. Lee Badgett, and Maria Floro (among many, many others). The opening plenary was entitled: “Diversifying Economics” and rather than asking the age old adage, ‘What can you do for the economy?’, the speakers at this conference flipped the script, asking: “How does the discipline of economics change when reoriented to address questions of gender equality and inclusion?” (Speaker Mieke Meurs).

While the issue of increasing diversity in higher education (in terms of representation of women and minorities) has long been an institutional goal of U.S. colleges and universities (albeit, a contested one), the discipline of economics has somehow averted these pressures. To that point, the conference began by citing some discouraging statistics, reporting the percent of PhD women graduates and full-professors in economics in 2015 was 31 percent and 12 percent respectively.

The number of minority PhD graduates reported was even lower. From 1995 to 2015, only 3 percent of PhD graduates in economics were minorities (as compared to 13 percent of doctoral graduates in sociology). But, the issue of diversity in economics is more than simply numbers deep, a sentiment shared by Maria Floro, a professor and co-director of the Graduate Program on Gender Analysis in economics at American University.

Floro noted that the meaning of and implications for diversity reaches far beyond that of simple numerical inclusion, but also includes an explicit understanding of representation and its relationship to creativity, innovation and insight in economics’ theoretical and empirical frameworks, models, and methods, especially when it comes to reducing economic inequality. This interest in diversity has important implications for the discipline and the public.

Floro explains, “The way we depict the economy… the exclusion of experiences and interests, of needs of certain groups, now this has a fundamental impact. It is not just an issue of body of knowledge because economics is highly influential in policy-making. Therefore, the economic policies that come out from that framework that tend to be exclusionary… can represent only and support only the interests of certain groups often at the expense of those excluded.”

To this point, American University has recently inaugurated a new research center: Care Work and the Economy, an interdisciplinary effort to create public and economic policy aimed at reducing inequality produced by the chronic public underinvestment in care provisioning that often directly impacts women’s careers and life choices (CWE, 2018).

conference panel

Opening Plenary (from left to right): Bina Agarwal, Nancy Folbre, Cecilia Conrad, Janet Yellen, Maria Floro, and Lee Badget. November 2, 2018.

 

In order to further diversity economics, Floro provides yet another imperative for the economics program at American University: “A multidisciplinary approach and methods is pivotal in understanding how human behavior and decisions are made… we see the need to learn from other social scientists and we make use and encourage our students to diversify in their methods and ask questions that have not been asked before… we, as economists, cannot learn by solely looking and using standard conventional economic tools.”

Sociologists should see this as an exciting development in our sibling discipline, and an opportunity for meaningful collaboration that would contribute to the public good. A diversity of perspectives concerning public issues of economic inequality would lead to better understanding of the complex relationship between economic outcomes and the social conditions and processes that give rise to them. This synergy would also contribute towards effective public and economic policies for groups and economic activities that have historically and traditionally been marginalized or devalued. To wrap up the closing plenary, Heidi Hartmann, president of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, proposed a reconceptualization of the discipline of economics.

Rather than the traditional conceptualization being a zero-sum game concerning the allocation of scarce resources in a society, she posed the question, “Why don’t we think about economics as the study of social provisioning?” She suggests that if we come to see the economy as a social good, the question then becomes, “How do we make sure everyone is provided for?”

Now, I think this is the conversation public sociologists are having, in existential synchrony with some economists, about producing knowledge for the good of the public interest. The public economists are asking themselves: economics for what and for whom?

Post-Script
If you are interested in learning more about economic gender analysis research in social and economic policy, especially those located in the DMV (District of Columbia, Maryland, Virginia) area, American University has now launched the first U.S. graduate program dedicated to the study of gender and economics.
Please visit https://research.american.edu/careworkeconomy/community/ or https://www.american.edu/cas/economics/news/research-seminars.cfm

References:

CWE (Care Work and the Economy). 2018. Mission and Vision. Accessed via: https://research.american.edu/careworkeconomy/about/mission-vision/

Floro, Maria (2018, November). Opening Plenary: Diversifying Economics. Presented at the Pathways to Gender Equality: Economic Gender Analysis Addressing Current and Future Challenges Conference at American University in Washington D.C.

Hartmann, Heidi (2018, November). Closing Plenary: Priorities Moving Forward. Presented at the Pathways to Gender Equality: Economic Gender Analysis Addressing Current and Future Challenges Conference at American University in Washington D.C.

Muers, Mieke (2018, November). Opening Plenary: Diversifying Economics. Presented at the Pathways to Gender Equality: Economic Gender Analysis Addressing Current and Future Challenges Conference at American University in Washington D.C.

By Amber Kalb

Return to January 2019 Issue

Call for Papers

megaphone with soundwaves

Punishing Trauma

Institutional and Individual Responses and Consequences for Children’s Adversities

A Conference at Columbia University in the City of New York

Friday, April 26th 2019

Call for Papers

Although the problem of mass incarceration has recently received more wide-spread scrutiny, the negative consequences of incarceration on children, families, and communities receive less attention and remain under addressed and poorly understood. Punishing Trauma aims to provide an interdisciplinary space for conversations between graduate students, faculty, and members of the community who work with, study, and confront these pressing concerns. Academic perspectives must be in conversation with community perspectives for justice to be truly served. To this end, we invite submissions from doctoral students in any discipline on topics examining the impact and consequences of punishment and surveillance, broadly conceived, on children, families, and communities. We also invite community organizers and activists, policy-makers, and individuals directly impacted by mass incarceration and mass supervision, who are currently working to mitigate these impacts, and who bring invaluable experience and critical perspectives, linking academic and community perspectives. Equitable responses to mass incarceration and mass supervision require transdisciplinary and community-based solutions. Punishing Trauma intends to serve as a venue for these crucial connections and conversations.

We invite submissions on topics including, but not limited to the following:

  • Race, gender, sexuality, and class dimensions of intergenerational trauma
  • Causes and consequences of housing instability on children/the homeless-to-prison pipeline
  • Health effects of stigma on children and over the life course
  • Racialized othering and the criminalization of students of color
  • Schools and other institutional responses to trauma
  • Adaptation and resilience to intergenerational trauma and onslaught
  • Institutional responses in education to promote empathetic school environments
  • Community and youth responses to urban adversities

Please submit extended abstracts (500-1,000 words) and contact information to: http://bit.ly/punishingtrauma

Deadline January 25, 2019 at 11:59 PM

Successful applicants will be informed by February 11th.

Limited travel grants will be available to select conference participants

Questions or Inquires? Contact punishingtrauma@gmail.com

 

In Memory of Devon Tyrone Wade, PhD

At his untimely passing, Devon Wade was completing his last year as a doctoral student in the Department of Sociology at Columbia University. An accomplished scholar-activist, Devon’s research was borne out of, and driven by, community needs. His dissertation examined how schools develop responses to children impacted by trauma, such as having incarcerated parents. Devon was posthumously awarded his PhD by Columbia University in May of 2018. Punishing Trauma is organized in his memory, in order to bring together like-minded scholars and activists to address the pressing issues to which Devon dedicated his life.

Return to January 2019 Issue