Intersectional Solidarities: Building Communities of Hope, Justice, and Joy

Editor’s note: Dr. Joya Misra was elected 115th president of the American Sociological Association in Spring 2022, and became president in August 2023. What follows is a condensed version of a January 2023 talk she gave as president-elect to the District of Columbia Sociological Society, provided by her to The Sociologist.

The theme for the 2024 American Sociological Association meetings is “Intersectional Solidarities: Building Communities of Hope, Justice, and Joy.” I believe that hope, justice, and joy are what we, as sociologists, need to be centering. While calls for social justice are more consistent within sociology, we engage less with hope, and even less with joy. Yet, justice, hope, and joy are all critical to creating a better world.

At the most challenging moments of my life, sociology has given me joy and hope. Sociological understandings of inequality appear in all the media I consume: the books I read, the music I listen to, and the movies and television I watch. I am in awe of how commonplace sociological concepts about gender, race, and class inequalities are, these days. I once had to spend weeks setting up a sociological foundation in my classroom, but these ideas are now accepted knowledge for students on day one. Of course, the fact that these sociological ideas and principles have become more accepted inflames those who wish to maintain their privilege, but the genie is out of the bottle.

Social justice has gone mainstream. We can’t ignore that something has changed, and I have a great deal of hope that what sociology and its sister disciplines in ethnic studies and gender studies have taught us about social justice will help us build a better world. And here I want to remind us, echoing Mary Romero (2020) and others, that the reason so many excellent sociologists work in interdisciplinary fields is because for much of its history, our discipline has treated social justice work as marginal. Yet, this work is increasingly being centered, not only in sociology, but also in the broader world. While there is considerable co-optation of social justice concepts, there is also hope.

Like many, I think of sociology as a form of liberatory praxis. I see sociology as an opportunity to intervene in those structural inequalities we are so skilled at identifying; and to pose ideas for better ways of structuring societies, institutions, and organizations. These ideas tend to be better the more we engage with wider publics, our communities, and those who are impacted most by inequalities. So, I believe in the importance of community-engaged research, both as a mode for how we do our research, and for how we present our findings.

As an interdisciplinary scholar in a joint appointment between sociology and public policy, I know that policy can often reinforce or worsen inequalities. I am also, however, a hopeful optimist who regularly considers how policies may be designed or revised to create greater equity. Like others, I worry that the White House has a Council of Economic Advisers, and not a Council of Social Advisers, because I think that sociologists, as well as other excluded social scientists, have important contributions to make (Irwin 2017).

I’m also excited and energized by the directions our field is moving in – expansions in anti-racist and DuBoisian approaches, as well as efforts to decolonize the field and engage with transnational, Global South, feminist, trans, and queer theorizing. All of these approaches might be read as “critical sociology,” a critique of the mainstream, hegemonic sociological frameworks in the US. Yet, I’d argue that over the last decade or two, that “critical” approach is edging closer and closer to the mainstream. The American Sociological Association is part of this shift, and is now highlighting more and more work that our sister societies like the Association of Black Sociologists, Sociologists for Women in Society, and the Society for the Study of Social Problems, have traditionally highlighted. These are exciting times.

Despite those indicators that the field is moving, I believe that there is important work ahead. We are living in a time of massive dislocations and inequalities. This reflects the pandemic, yes, but also the shift from industrial to post-industrial economies, the dramatic growth in income inequality, and the lack of a safety net and leisure time for far too many.

Many people feel that they are being left behind. And here, I’m not only talking about “the public,” but also sociologists. This reflects the adjunctification of the academy, and the stark differences between tenured, tenure-line, and non-tenure-line faculty. This work is critical to considering what the neoliberal academy is becoming. But I also want us to pay attention to the differences between those working at institutions with very large endowments, and those at institutions struggling to keep the lights on. We also need to consider the many types of jobs sociologists are doing outside of the academy: some are earning well in private, public, and non-profit jobs, and others are barely–or not even–scraping by. And we need to treat all of our members with respect.

There are powerful status hierarchies in the field itself. Cecilia Ridgeway (2014) explains that people automatically assume that people with more status, with more resources, are better than those with fewer resources. Ridgeway shows how these biases play out in daily life, affecting both the behaviors of high and low-status people, and outcomes, so that, for example, within sociology we continue reinforcing these status differences in self-fulfilling ways.

A recent paper in Science Advances from a group of computer scientists explores data encompassing 1.6 million publications by 78,802 tenured or tenure-track faculty in 4,492 PhD-granting departments in the United States, across 25 scientific disciplines from 2008 to 2017. This is big data. The researchers show that the productivity gaps between faculty at elite and less elite institutions can be explained by the greater availability of funded graduate and postdoctoral labor at more prestigious institutions. They summarize: “the productivity dominance of researchers at elite institutions is not due to inherent characteristics such as greater skill or insight or to their academic pedigree but rather can be explained by the greater labor resources accorded to them by their prestigious location within the academic system” (Zhang et al. 2022:6). And I see this operating in our field.

Understanding this has important implications for what the field does next. I’m very taken with the idea of epistemic justice – recognizing the important contributions to knowledge that diverse standpoints and positionalities bring. Many people have been thinking about this, often theorizing it in terms of epistemic exclusion and injustice. Scholars like Mary Romero (2020) and Aldon Morris (2022) and Cecilia Menjívar (2023) have beautifully explained how progress in the field has been hampered by epistemic exclusion, as a result of white supremacy, colonization, and gender, racial, and global hierarchies.

It’s too easy to think that those whose work turns up in certain journals are doing more important work, rather than considering how epistemic injustice shapes what work is allowed into those journals. Or to think those sociologists who are earning more are doing work that is more valuable. Or even more insidiously, that faculty members are doing work that is more important than those who are working in alternative academic jobs or outside academia. But none of that is true.

Sociologists recognize that systems are not meritocratic, yet somehow continue to act as if sociological careers are distributed in meritocratic ways. They are not. How ironic is it that the field that focuses on understanding inequalities reinforces those very same inequalities.

Sociologists in many different kinds of jobs are doing valuable, meaningful work. And recognizing that value and that meaning, unmaking the deep divides within our field, is critical work for the 21st century. Being in this role, it’s a chance to shine a light on these discrepancies, and consider how we can build a more inclusive, more equitable community; a community that recognizes the value of all kinds of sociological careers – because in doing so, we will grow the power and strength of sociology for making a better world.

Yet, despite the ways that certain kinds of work are devalued, we can be doing work that is meaningful, work that brings us joy. I see this in the ways that my friends teaching at community colleges, four-year colleges, and universities describe the power of the sociological imagination for their students; I see this in the ways that my friends working in nonprofit and public sector jobs see their work making a difference, moving the needle on a variety of inequalities in our world; I see this in the ways that my friends in all sorts of settings find joy and meaning in their research and public sociology.

Thus, one piece of building communities of hope, justice, and joy is here – with a focus on sociologists. How can we benefit from the brilliant insights of a wide array of sociologists, who are engaging with diverse audiences in many different kinds of positions? How can engaging more fully, with sociologists in different places, including outside the US and outside of the Global North, help us develop better, more just visions of the world?

At the same time, I want to be pushing us to develop models that identify solutions – how to create more equitable cultures, structures, and societies. We do have to identify inequalities before we can identify more equitable approaches. But I worry that we, too often, stop at identifying the disjunctures, the inequalities, and the brokenness of our world, and do not see ourselves as social science superheroes, jumping in to save the day.

Why not? Well, we don’t want to overreach. We don’t want to pretend that we can glibly solve problems that represent centuries of inequalities, inequalities that continue on and on in front of our eyes.

In the town of Amherst, where I live, we are working on a plan for reparations. And how can we possibly make reparations for the centuries of enslavement, displacement,  discrimination, police killings, and the constant grind of anti-Black racism?

We have a seven-person committee, the African Heritage Reparation Assembly, that is engaging in both reparations and community-wide reconciliation and repair for harms against Black people. There are three pieces to the committee’s charge: a plan for developing funding streams to repair past harms committed by the town against Black people; an allocation plan determined and approved by the broader Amherst Black community; and additional means of repair for anti-Black structural and communal racism, including truth-telling and reconciliation. So far the town has pledged only two million to this reparations fund (Russell 2022).

While I deeply appreciate the work of the African Heritage Reparation Assembly, I am endlessly frustrated with the slow progress we are making. And yet, what is the alternative? Not to work toward reparations? Not to take something of a jump? U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern has called Amherst’s efforts a potential blueprint for the rest of the state and the country; and while I think “heaven help us,” I also think, what a difference it would make for every community if the state, if the country, made reparations (Merzbach 2023).

I think, sometimes, we have to be willing to make that leap into the unknown, to take from our work not only what it reveals about the inequalities in our world, but what it might suggest about strategies to heal the world.

When I ask sociologists what brought them to the field I consistently hear that they wanted to make a positive difference in the world. And we do that in a variety of ways. We do that by pushing within the agencies we work, by teaching students to use a sociological imagination and work toward change, by working with community organizations and unions and other advocates, by doing research on the things that we think can help build a better world. And let’s not forget: by protesting. Doing these things, working for justice, can give us more hope and more joy.

Building on the brilliant work of many other leaders, I want to push sociology as a field into the business of suggesting how to create a more equitable world. What I think sociologists can bring – what I think you can bring – is a new way to intervene. And I think those interventions we make need to be grounded in sociological theorizing and methods, but also in a deep engagement with the communities that we are working with. I also think those interventions need to come from the work of sociologists in many different kinds of jobs. This kind of solidaristic approach, not working separately or from above, but with – as comrades in struggle – this is what will lead us, slowly, toward a better world.

And that better and more just world, it’s possible. But it needs us, sociologists, in the fray.


Irwin, Neil. 2017. “What If Sociologists Had as Much Influence as Economists?” The New York Times, March 17.

Menjívar, Cecilia. 2023. “State Categories, Bureaucracies of Displacement, and Possibilities from the Margins.” American Sociological Review 88(1):1–23. doi: 10.1177/00031224221145727.

Merzbach, Scott. 2023. “McGovern: Amherst a reparations role model, hopes work locally will push feds to create a commission.” Daily Hampshire Gazette. Retrieved December 14, 2023 (

Morris, Aldon. 2022. “Alternative View of Modernity: The Subaltern Speaks.” American Sociological Review 87(1):1–16. doi: 10.1177/00031224211065719.

Ridgeway, Cecilia L. 2014. “Why Status Matters for Inequality.” American Sociological Review 79(1):1–16. doi: 10.1177/0003122413515997.

Romero, Mary. 2020. “Sociology Engaged in Social Justice.” American Sociological Review 85(1):1–30. doi: 10.1177/0003122419893677.

Russell, Jim. 2022. “Amherst Town Council paves way for $2 million reparations bank.” Masslive. Retrieved December 14, 2023 (

Zhang, Sam, K. Hunter Wapman, Daniel B. Larremore, and Aaron Clauset. 2022. “Labor Advantages Drive the Greater Productivity of Faculty at Elite Universities.” Science Advances 8(46):eabq7056. doi: 10.1126/sciadv.abq7056.

By Joya Misra

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