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Rethinking Police-Community Relations

An interview with Ron Weitzer

On December 22, 2014, The Sociologist (TS) interviewed Ron Weitzer, who has studied and written two books and many articles about police-community relations in the U.S. and other nations. Below we have reproduced excerpts from the interview. Professor Weitzer is in the sociology department at the George Washington University.

TS: Over the past 20 years, you have researched, studied and written about police-community relations. What are the key findings you can share with us in the wake of the protests surrounding the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and John Crawford?

Ron Weitzer: There are over 17,000 police departments.  First, we have to be careful not to generalize from one incident or one pattern of practice (like racial profiling in a particular police department) to other departments.  Second, over the past 50 years there has been significant progress in policing in the United States. In the past, both patrol officers and their supervisors were much less accountable than they are today. There was much less media coverage of harsh and oppressive police practices or of questionable incidents resulting in injury or death. One major variable is the type of philosophy or police culture in a department.

Philosophies of Policing

There are different types of organizational cultures: one is the zero-tolerance approach—also called the “broken-windows” approach—where the police believe that by cracking down on very minor offenses they are thereby preventing more serious offenses from occurring; the offenses may be minor misdemeanors or just civil infractions like selling cigarettes illegally on the street (Eric Garner in New York). Some police departments put a lot of resources into enforcing the law against these minor offenses, because of the department’s ethos of zero-tolerance or broken-windows policing.  The New York Police Department (NYPD) and a few others adamantly believe that this approach works to reduce crime.

The opposite philosophy is community policing. Under community policing, officers do not necessarily ignore minor infractions, but they are less likely to devote significant resources to minor infractions, and focus instead on more serious crimes. And at the same time, police try to build positive relationships with neighborhood residents and merchants in a way that can help officers solve crimes in the present or can help to deter criminal activity in the future.

Community policing shifts the priorities away from low-level infractions towards more serious crimes and also toward building ongoing collaborative relationships with neighborhood residents.

Variation in Policing

TS:  Are there variations in policing, within a particular city, based on the composition of neighborhoods?

Ron Weitzer: Yes. Police practices vary, at least to some extent, by racial, ethnic and class composition of a neighborhood. Neighborhoods that are predominantly black or Latino—and especially those that are socioeconomically disadvantaged—tend to get a different kind of policing than neighborhoods that are white or middle class. So there’s both a race and class difference in how the police perceive different neighborhoods, and also in how they behave in those neighborhoods. What makes it somewhat complicated is the local crime rate: the police will tell you that they make no distinctions by racial or class makeup of neighborhoods. Instead, police  practices are governed solely by the local crime rate; but, there are some very good controlled studies comparing different types of neighborhoods by race, class, and crime rate that find that the police do act differently in black and Latino communities than in white communities—and particularly in poor neighborhoods and areas.

Blue shield that reads "Metropolitan Police USA" in white

TS: Do police receive training to sensitize them to different groups?

Ron Weitzer: The police get sensitivity training in the police academy, which attempts to reduce racial bias, and this has been a progressive development across the board in police departments over the past 40 years or so. Part of their training involves community sensitivity courses, and other attempts by the instructors to reduce or prevent class or racial profiling once recruits start working the streets.

Racial Profiling

Once they get out of the academy, many officers have progressive views: they see themselves as serving the public and fighting crime with no animus toward civilians. But after they have worked for some time, the tendency is for officers to begin to typify people according to type of neighborhood, because officers receive a disproportionate number of calls to high-crime neighborhoods. So, their day-to-day activities begin to generate typifications of “good” and “bad” neighborhoods as well as the residents living in them. The other part of this evolving orientation is socialization by other officers, where they learn to perceive some people as crime-prone or some neighborhoods as criminogenic, compared to other neighborhoods that are viewed as law-abiding.

We know that the police stop young black or Latino males more often than they stop young white males. And young minority males are not just stopped disproportionately; they are stopped repeatedly. This certainly feels like harassment and discrimination. We don’t hear young white males claiming that this happens to them.

TS: Can we say that whatever prejudices the police recruits have before they enter the academy are washed away through training in the academy?

Ron Weitzer: We shouldn’t assume that they have a clean slate either before or after training. There are individuals who come into the training academy with strong prejudices. I am sure there are individuals like that. I don’t think there’s much research, however, on recruits’ racial attitudes prior to coming into the academy.

What we do know is that, just like the wider public, implicit racism operates. Police officers as well as civilians hold perceptions and stereotypes that are latent and semi-conscious, as revealed in experimental studies. Most of us have these implicit racial biases, and individuals who enlist in a police department bring those biases into the force, just like ordinary civilians do in their daily lives.

Typical Background of the Police Recruit

TS:  What is the typical background of a police recruit who enters the academy?

Ron Weitzer: Forty years ago, a typical recruit would be someone who is white, male, working-class, and had not gone to college. But today, it is much more mixed, especially in big-city departments. In rural areas or small cities there remains a preponderance of officers with blue-collar backgrounds. But when you come to the big cities, there are recruits who are college graduates (some have master’s degrees), are from middle-class families, and come from all racial and ethnic groups. The number of female officers has increased as well, though not so dramatically. This raises the question of whether diversification makes a difference in officer behavior.


There are data that show that some black officers are better able to communicate with black citizens than white officers.

In enforcing the law, they tend to act similarly. You could say that officers are “blue” rather than black, brown, or white.

On the other hand, diversification of a police department is important symbolically in multi-racial cities. Research shows that the American public overwhelmingly favors the diversification of departments to make them visibly reflect the composition of the local population. This can enhance the level of public trust and confidence in the police.

The Fringe

TS: How about the recent killing of the two police officers in New York City in December 2014? What does it say about the direction of police-community relations?

Ron Weitzer: Attacking police officers is a way for extremists, angered by incidents of police misconduct, to retaliate or, as we have seen in other recent shootings, for anti-government radicals to attack the state. In June 2014, a young man and woman killed two Las Vegas officers at a restaurant, apparently acting on their white-supremacist, anti-government views.

The killing of the officers in New York City is a bad omen in several ways. It has already made the police more tense, more guarded, and perhaps more likely to shoot unruly civilians. And this kind of reaction goes in the opposite direction of the way the police should be going. An incident like this, perhaps understandably, may make the NYPD and other police departments much more cautious and less willing to reach out and have conversations with minority communities. A violent attack on a police officer undermines progress in opening up channels of communication and problem-solving. It puts all officers on edge and makes them less likely to have constructive engagement with the public. It is unfortunate for improving police-community relations throughout the country.

Return to February 2015 Issue

What’s Your Sociology?

By Johanna Bockman

In the 1920s and 1930s, a time of much revolutionary activity, what did sociologists understand by sociology? There are at least three answers to this question, and the sociologists in DCSS exemplified at least two, if not all three, of the answers. The answers will likely surprise many sociologists today.

Representing the first answer, Stuart A. Rice, founding member of the DCSS, seemed to give up right away: “I do not want to go into a discussion of what sociology is. You all know the embarrassment that the question raises” (1934:220). He overcame his embarrassment to suggest that sociology deals with “problems,” which “are regarded by all as social or sociological problems” (ibid.). For Rice, Roosevelt’s New Deal programs put sociology into practice. The government had identified a wide range of sociological problems – problems with housing, work, the family, crime, and so on – which it was trying to solve through “social reform” in order to improve the “social well-being” and “social security” of the population. For Rice, this was sociology. Therefore, “government is a great sociological experiment.”

Source: the National Archives and New Deal Network. WPA workers indexing and preserving census records, New York City, October 1936.

Source: the National Archives and New Deal Network. WPA workers indexing and preserving census records, New York City, October 1936.


Yet, Rice came from a radical background in a radical time. In early 1920s Seattle, Rice had been the executive secretary of the local Farmer-Labor Party, which called for public ownership of railroads, utilities, and natural resources; an end to private banking; and the nationalization of unused land (“Stuart Arthur Rice” 1969). One Farmer-Labor Party song went:

Take the two old parties, mister.

No difference in them can I see.

But with a farmer-labor party,

We will set the workers free.1

After the electoral failure of one of the party candidates, Rice left radical politics to study sociology at Columbia University: “My matriculation in sociology…was a confession of failure, a search for freedom from illusions.…I wanted to abandon preconceptions and to learn what makes the world ‘tick,’ rejecting in the search everything but demonstrable evidence and objective analysis…finding the truth and taking the consequences” (ibid.). By the time he arrived in Washington, D.C., he seems to have turned to a more top-down sociology, a sociology for a New Deal public administration.

Other members of DCSS embraced a bottom-up approach to social life, the second answer to the question. The first president of DCSS and George Washington University sociology professor, D. W. Willard, wrote about the uniquely vibrant nature of associational life in Washington, D.C. Willard (1930) documented the wide variety of local associations that existed at the neighborhood level and federated at the city-wide level. Willard focused on white citizen associations, which more recent literature has criticized for their support of racially restrictive housing covenants and new forms of racial segregation in the 1920s (Gotham 2002; Sugrue 2014).

Other sociologists followed the cooperative movement and its more inclusive and integrative potential. In 1940, Eva Jeany Ross began as the head of the department of sociology at Trinity College in Washington, D.C. and soon joined the DCSS. She had been born in Belfast and then worked and studied in London, Paris, and elsewhere in Europe. She published a number of sociology textbooks. In 1937, she completed her sociology dissertation at Yale University, which was published in 1940 as Belgian Rural Cooperation: A Study in Social Adjustment. Ross approved that Belgian cooperatives worked “solely for the well-being of their members,” though she found unfortunate their later emphasis on “the profit motive” that made them more “capitalist” (1940: 74, 149). Ross supported cooperatives and their “social” nature.

Her work reflected an excitement about cooperatives in the United States and Europe. In far northeast Washington, D.C., with assistance from the New Deal’s Federal Emergency Relief Administration, civil rights activist Nannie Helen Burroughs established the Northeast Self-Help Cooperative, later renamed Cooperative Industries, Inc., a cooperative that served approximately six-thousand people between 1934 and 1938 (Bockman Forthcoming a). In 1938, the Washington Bookshop, also called The Bookshop and the Bookshop Association, formed as a cooperative, which sold books and records at a discount, but also functioned as an interracial social club, art gallery, and lecture hall (McReynolds and Robbins 2009: 76-77). Further away in France, like Ross, Marcel Mauss had written admiringly on Belgian cooperatives, and both Mauss and his uncle Emile Durkheim greatly supported “institutional socialism,” which seems to have found support within the Washington, D.C. sociological community and which I describe below.

In this second answer, sociology is not the top-down or technocratic guiding of social reform nor is it merely the description of populations and their social needs.

According to a fascinating interpretation by Gane (1992), Emile Durkheim had long written about the abnormalities of modern social life – anomie, suicide, and so on – caused by the anarchic capitalist system. In contrast to this destructive world, Durkheim sought a return to a more normal and healthy society of the guilds. He called for a guild or “institutional” socialism, an inclusive democratic society built from occupational organizations.2

In 1899, Mauss built on Durkheim’s ideas and turned to Belgian cooperatives as an exemplar because of their economic, welfare, intellectual, and artistic elements based on collective property; he later argued that a cooperative society must also include markets and money (Gane 1992: 140; Mauss 1924-5:188-190). Through vast international federation, cooperatives would reorganize society and be able to stand up to capitalism in the name of “a universal proletariat” (Gane 1992: 141). In contrast to elite-driven revolutionary or reformist change, Durkheim’s and Mauss’s ideas were evolutionary and socialist.

By the 1920s, many scholars had put forth similar ideas. Guild socialism became very popular. In his book Social Theory, G.D.H. Cole (1920) argued for “functionalist” democracy, in which people represent the many sides of themselves in associations – such as factories, churches, trade unions, cooperatives, socialist league, hobby clubs, and sports clubs – each defined

by their specific function. The state would be just one part of this much broader society of associations. These associations would unite through functional congresses or councils, which would realize full self-government by all the members of society, in contrast to representative democracy. The working class would organize this new order because it has a new form of social power, associative power.3 Thus, the excitement about cooperatives and local associations by Eva Jeany Ross, D. W. Willard, and others, as well as Lester Ward’s interest in evolutionary trends in Washington, D.C. reflects this second answer, a sociology that helps to create a new society built on local institutions and cooperatives with individuals participating voluntarily and as equals.4

Finally, the third answer is represented in the 1921 publication (in Russian) of Nikolai Bukharin’s Historical Materialism: A System of Sociology. To Bukharin, sociology was historical materialism, an approach to studying society from the perspective of the proletariat and class conflict, and laying out a revolutionary path forward. W.E.B. Dubois’s 1935 Black Reconstruction in America also reflects a similar approach to sociology. I have not found an example of this group in the early DCSS, but, if you have some ideas, let me know.

How do we today relate to these three different answers? On the surface, we have easily accepted that sociology’s forefathers were Weber, Durkheim, and Marx. We can see the DCSS sociologists as mirroring these three forefathers.

When we dig deeper, however, we can see that in the revolutionary world of the 1920s and 1930s, sociology had close ties to a variety of socialisms: a top-down socialism or capitalism expressed through statistics and rigorous methods, a grassroots socialism full of civic associations and cooperatives, and a revolutionary socialism of class conflict. Where would one of DCSS’s most famous sociologists from this time period, former DCSS president E. Franklin Frazier, fit in these categories? Do we see these socialisms today in sociology? Did the Cold War destroy sociology’s links to socialisms? Or have they just been lurking around hidden from clear view?


  1. “I Don’t Want Your Millions, Mister” by Jim Garland, sung by Tillman Cadle. Labor Arts website: Retrieved December 29, 2014.
  2. Gane (1992) rejects 1930s theories about Durkheim’s connection with fascism, since more recent theories have demonstrated Durkheim’s commitment to democratic socialism (p. 139).
  3. In the early 1920s, Karl Polanyi developed similar ideas (Bockman Forthcoming b).
  4. However, the segregated associations of Washington, D.C. discussed by Willard and others did not allow for equality.

Works Cited

  1. Bockman, Johanna. Forthcoming a. “Home Rule from Below: The Cooperative Movement in Washington, D.C.” In Capital Dilemma: Growth and Inequality in Washington, D.C., edited by Sabiyha Prince and Derek Hyra.
  2. Bockman, Johanna. Forthcoming b. “Socialism and the Embedded Society: Preface to Karl Polanyi’s ‘Socialist Accounting,’” Theory and Society.
  3. Bukharin, Nikolai. [1921] 1925. Historical Materialism: A System of Sociology. International Publisher
  4. Cole, G. D. H. (1920). Social Theory. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company Publishers.
  5. DuBois, W. E. B. 1935. Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880. New York: Simon and Schuster.
  6. Gane, Mike. 1992. “Institutional Socialism and the Sociological Critique of Communism.” Pp. 135–64 in The Radical sociology of Durkheim and Mauss, edited by Mike Gane. London, UK: Routledge.
  7. Gotham, Kevin Fox. 2002. Race, Real Estate, and Uneven Development: The Kansas City Experience, 1900-2000. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
  8. Mauss, Marcel. [1924-5] 1992. “A Sociological Assessment of Bolshevism (1924-5).” Pp. 165–211 in The Radical Sociology of Durkheim and Mauss, edited by Mike Gane. London, UK: Routledge.
  9. McReynolds, Rosalee, and Louise S. Robbins. 2009. The Librarian Spies: Philip and Mary Jane Keeney and Cold War Espionage. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Publishing Group.
  10. Rice, Stuart A. 1934. “Questions for Sociology: An Informal Round Table Symposium: What is the Role of Sociology in Current Social Reconstruction? What are the Sociological Implications of the New Deal? What is the Place of Sociology in the Federal Government? Is There a New Rural Sociology for the Inventory of American Agrarian Culture? What is the Matter with the Sociologists? and other Questions.” Social Forces 13(2): 220-223.
  11. Ross, Eva Jeany. 1940. Belgian Rural Cooperation; a Study in Social Adjustment. Milwaukee, WI: The Bruce Publishing Company.
  12. “Stuart Arthur Rice: Student Activist to Statistical Statesman,” The American Statistician, 1969.
  13. Sugrue, Thomas J. 2014. The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  14. Willard, D. W. 1930. “Community Organization Through Citizens Associations,” Social Forces 9(2): 220-229.

Return to February 2015 Issue

The Mis-measurement of Racial Identity

By C. Soledad Espinoza

A fundamental challenge to collecting and analyzing race data is how to appropriately measure the racial identity for many Americans. The present conventions at the United States Census Bureau may undermine the accurate reporting of the full racial composition of contemporary America.

There are two major changes being considered by the U.S. Census Bureau (2014a). The first proposed revision is to combine the race and Hispanic ethnicity questions. This would allow those of Spanish descent or Latin American origin to select Hispanic/Latino as an available response alongside the standard Office of Management and Budget (OMB) race categories.1,2 The second proposed revision is to add a new category under the combined race and ethnicity questions for those of Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) origin. These revisions would allow the largest ethnic groups of multi-racial ancestry to report commonly shared identities as a single response or in addition to other responses for racial identity.

The proposed changes contrast with historical precedent and the existing convention at the U.S. Census Bureau to generally attribute a white identity to these populations.3 Yet advocates and scholars have criticized the paradox of individuals from these groups being counted as white (but not treated as white), especially when many individuals from these groups do not themselves identify as white (Gómez 2007; Kahn 2010; Dowling 2014; U.S. Census Bureau 2014a; 2014b). The revised schema would be more congruent with the treatment of multi-racial persons in past decennial censuses.

Race data on blacks and whites have been collected since the first decennial census in 1790 (U.S. Census Bureau 2002). The race of native born blacks of full black ancestry have at times been separately recorded from native born blacks of “some proportion” or a “perceptible trace” of black ancestry (as mulatto, quadroons, or octoroons), whose race has never been recorded as white by convention. In contrast, for American Indians of multi-racial origins, whiteness has been available, “a person of mixed white and Indian blood should be returned as Indian, except where the percentage of Indian blood is very small, or where he is regarded as a white person by those in the community” (U.S. Census Bureau 1930).

Per the U.S. Census Bureau, the existing category of ‘Black, African American, or Negro’ “refers to a person having origins in any of the Black racial groups of Africa” (U.S. Census Bureau 2009; 2011). The category of ‘White’ refers to any “person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa.  It includes people who identify as ‘White’ or report entries such as Irish, German, Italian, Lebanese, Near Easterner, Arab, or Polish.”

Current practices at the U.S. Census Bureau lead to perplexing racial classifications for Latinos of multi-racial ancestry as well. Per the U.S. Census Bureau, the category ‘American Indian or Alaska Native’ “refers to a person having origins in any of the original peoples of North and South America (including Central America) and who maintains tribal affiliation or community attachment”  (U.S. Census Bureau 2009; 2011).

For those persons who have deep ancestral origins in the continents of the Americas but who do not maintain ‘tribal affiliation’ or indigenous ‘community attachment,’ there is no standard OMB race category available. Of the Latino population, only 1.4 percent report being American Indian alone and another 1 percent report being American Indian in combination with another race (U.S. Census Bureau 2011). This does not reflect the indigenous racial ancestry of Latin America and of many Latinos.

Per the U.S. Census Bureau, the category ‘Some Other Race’ includes “all other responses not included in the race categories…Respondents identifying as multiracial, mixed, interracial, or a Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish group (for example, Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, or Spanish) are included in this category” (U.S. Census Bureau 2014b). Yet, due to historical reasons, many Latinos report as white alone despite having multi-racial ancestry. In 1970, among Hispanics, 94.9 percent identified or were recorded as white.

In subsequent decades, however, there was a marked shift to many more Latinos reporting as non-white (U.S. Census Bureau 2002). For the 1980 decennial census, there was the first introduction of the term “Hispanic” and a full transition to reporting racial and ethnic identity based on self-identification (rather than based on external observation by census enumerators). From 1980 to the present, about half of Latinos have opted out of reporting as white. Among Latinos, 55.6 percent, 51.7 percent, 48.1 percent, and 53.0 percent identified as white in the 1980, 1990, 2000, and 2010 decennial censuses respectively (U.S. Census Bureau 2002). See graph below.

Data compiled by the author from various decennial censuses (see U.S. Census Bureau 2002, 2012).

Source: Data compiled by the author from various decennial censuses (see U.S. Census Bureau 2002, 2012).


There has been no established trend of a rebound to Latinos—as a group—wholly identifying as white (as was presumed to be the case in the decades prior to 1980). Indeed, the most noteworthy change in the trend of race reporting among Latinos since 1980 is that the proportion reporting as white drops markedly (to about only one-in-five) when a Hispanic/Latino option is made available in a combined race and ethnic origin question format (JBS International, Inc. 2011; U.S. Census Bureau 2014b).

Broadly attributing whiteness to multi-racial groups contradicts the historical and present structure of race in America and globally. Within the current schema of the decennial census that allows for multiple responses (which was first adopted by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2000), there is no longer a practical need to assign single race identities to groups that have deep interracial histories. Indeed, the common terms of ‘Latino’ and ‘Middle Eastern’ are often used to reflect the inextricably multi-racial history of the respective regions. Proposed revisions would enable persons of single race or multi-racial ancestry to report a single response or choose from the array of options that they authentically identify with. For example, this would allow the reporting of Latino and black, Latino and white, or Latino and any other combination of race.

The practice of restricting and re-defining the racial identities of Latino and MENA groups to white results in mis-measurement of white identity and the relative size of other racial identities in America. Without revisions, the race data collected from the decennial census will continue to be incomplete and, in many cases inaccurate for the millions who do not partly or fully identify with any of the standard OMB races. The proposed revisions would enhance the accuracy, completeness, and validity of the self-reported data on race and ethnicity. They would also clarify the racial identity of many of the otherwise ambiguous residual race category responses now reported as ‘Some Other Race,’ which is now the third largest race category in the U.S. (and may soon become the second largest race category).


  1. The standard OMB race categories used for the 2010 census are White; Black, African American, or Negro; American Indian or Alaska Native; Asian; Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander; and Some Other Race.
  2. The terms Latino and Hispanic are used interchangeably in this article.
  3. Eligibility rules for U.S. citizenship historically established the assignment of whiteness to members of Latino and MENA groups (Gómez 2007 and Gualtieri 2009).

Works Cited

  1. Dowling, Julie. 2014. Mexican Americans and the Question of Race. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
  2. Gómez, Laura E. 2007. Manifest Destinies: The Making of the Mexican American Race. New York, NY: New York University Press.
  3. Gualtieri, Sarah. 2009. Between Arab and White: Race and Ethnicity in the Early Syrian American Diaspora. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.
  4. JBS International, Inc. 2011. “Final Report of the Alternative Questionnaire Experiment Focus Group Research.” Bethesda, MD.
  5. Kahn, Carrie. 2010. “Arab-American Census Activist Say ‘Check It Right’” NPR. March 29th. Retrieved Jan 5. 2015.
  6. U.S. Census Bureau. 1930. “Instructions to Enumerators: Population and Agriculture.” Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Commerce.
  7. U.S. Census Bureau. 2002. “Historical Census Statistics on Populations Totals by Race, 1790 to 1990, and by Hispanic Origin, 1970 to 1990, for the United States, Regions, Divisions, and States. Suitland, MD: U.S. Department of Commerce. Economics and Statistics Administration.
  8. U.S. Census Bureau. 2009. “Enumerator Manual 2010 Census.” Suitland, MD: U.S. Department of Commerce.
  9. U.S. Census Bureau. 2011. “Overview of Race and Hispanic Origin: 2010.” Suitland, MD: U.S. Department of Commerce.
  10. U.S. Census Bureau. 2012. Census Tables DP-1 Demographic Profile Data for 2000 and 2010. American FactFinder. Retrieved Jan 5. 2015.
  11. U.S. Census Bureau 2014a. “The 2010 Census Race and Hispanic Origin Alternative Questionnaire Experiment.” Presented at Pew Research Center on March 12, 2014.
  12. U.S. Census Bureau 2014b. “Race Reporting Among Hispanics: 2010.” Suitland, MD: U.S. Department of Commerce.

Return to February 2015 Issue


Markets in the Name of Socialism, Planning in the Name of Capitalism

By Johanna Bockman

Many scholars have assumed that Americans converted Eastern Europe, Latin America, and other parts of the world to free market capitalism by propagating mainstream American economics abroad. Mainstream American economics does present an abstract world of rational individuals and rational prices responding to supply and demand on perfect markets. Further confirming this view, famous economists, such as Milton Friedman, continually praised free market capitalism and condemned state intervention, central planning, and socialism.

Moreover, economists trained in the United States often work in the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, imposing free-market policies on those abroad. These economists seem fundamentally different from economists in the former socialist world, who, it is assumed, practiced Marxism-Leninism and called for the dismantling of free markets and imposition of centralized state planning. Yet, when we place the United States within a transnational context, we can see that its mainstream economics is rather tenuously tied to markets and capitalism and that many of the supposedly capitalist reforms thought to have been imposed by the United States abroad in fact have their origins in local attempts to perfect socialism.1 How might markets be quite socialist? How might planning be capitalist?

In my book Markets in the Name of Socialism: The Left-Wing Origins of Neoliberalism, I go back to the nineteenth-century beginnings of what would eventually become mainstream neoclassical economics in the United States and take this history up to just after 1989. Being a historical comparative sociologist, I would never use the tools of neoclassical economics. However, understanding neoclassical ideas over time and in transnational context has helped me make sense of many trends we sociologists find interesting: neoliberalism, the Washington Consensus, economic development, and many socialisms.

My research originally started in socialist Hungary, where I had attended Karl Marx University of Economics as an exchange student and took courses with teachers who sounded more like Milton Friedman and Ronald Reagan than like Karl Marx. During my later dissertation research, I found that Hungarian economists had been calling for both markets and socialism since the 1950s. My research became transnational and multi-sited as I followed the paths of economists who worked with each other across the Cold-War divide between the socialist East and the capitalist West. Economists from socialist Eastern Europe told me that they worked with, for example, economists at Harvard or at Stanford during the 1960s and 1970s. Why did economists in capitalist countries and their counterparts in socialist countries find it interesting and useful to work together? It had something to do with economists’ unexpected understandings of markets and planning. I had to look further back in history to find the answer.

Economics flowing from East to West

Marginalist economics, what would become neoclassical economics, formed in the 1870s in Austria, Britain, and Switzerland. These economists criticized Karl Marx and the labor theory of value because, they argued, value was not determined by labor but rather by supply and demand. They also understood markets as the most efficient way to allocate goods. These economists determined that they could describe the movements of supply, demand, and prices through a series of mathematical equations. In the 1890s, Vilfredo Pareto, who would later become so important to sociology, surprisingly stated that economists could ignore real markets and instead use these equations describing markets to plan the economy. A central planner could, therefore, use these tools for planning. As a result, neoclassical economists have continued to understand markets and central planning as mathematically identical and, thus, equally efficient, at least in theory.

Furthermore, these economists had long criticized Karl Marx and other socialists for refusing to describe the future socialist world. According to them and Marx himself, Marxism was, in fact, a critique of capitalism, not a science of socialism. Karl Polanyi (1922) similarly recognized that only marginalist economics provided a model for a socialist economy: Marx had indeed created a theory of the capitalist economy; it however consciously avoids mentioning a theory of the socialist economy. The only theory of a market-less economy that we have at our disposal originated from the marginalist school and indeed as the theory of a closed economy. So, paradoxical as it might sound in many ears, a communist administered economy could turn only to this school to found its own theoretical economics.

In the 1920s, neoclassical economists developed their theories and complex mathematics in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Vienna, and Berlin. The Soviet Union then exiled many neoclassical economists, who went to work in the lively intellectual worlds of Vienna and Berlin. With the rise of the Nazis and the coming war, many of these economists brought their professional knowledge to the United States. There they found work in the military and in universities often on military contracts. Some economists later worked within large corporations, including IBM. Both those working for the military and for corporations within a capitalist system continued to practice planning as they had in the planned economies of Eastern Europe, and they thus brought new planning methods for economies into these large organizations. Planning turned out to be as important for capitalism as for socialism.

Other neoclassical economists remained in socialist Eastern Europe and used their professional training to develop a variety of socialisms. Some worked in the national planning offices. Others criticized central planning as carried out in their own countries and called for market socialisms based on the models of neoclassical economics. In socialist Yugoslavia, for example, economists worked towards dismantling the state, creating completely free markets, and converting state property into the “social property” of cooperatives and worker-managed factories and other enterprises. These cooperative enterprises would, ideally, compete on a free market, thus realizing a socialism of actual workers’ power and the stateless society all agreed was the goal of communism. In the minds of these economists, the Soviet Union and the United States could only create statism, while truly socialist countries could establish fully competitive markets and radical workers’ power. Thus, they used markets in the name of socialism.

Economists East and West found both markets and planning professionally interesting and useful. Those outside of economics often label economists as either for free markets (Milton Friedman) or against free markets (maybe Paul Krugman or Joseph Stiglitz). Whatever their politics, in their professional work, economists do not choose between markets and planning because both markets and planning are located at the core of their professional work. Economists from many different political orientations often pursue quite similar professional practices. Paul Krugman (2007) has rejected the politics and ideology of Milton Friedman, while stating: “I regard him as a great economist and a great man,” which he similarly espoused more recently (Krugman 2013). Similarly, Paul Samuelson (1983) supported Keynesianism and Friedman’s professional work: “I could disagree 180º with [Friedman’s] policy conclusion and yet concur in diagnosis of the empirical observations and inferred probabilities” (pp. 5–6). This shared neoclassical practice enabled Milton Friedman to work for a short time in the socialist Yugoslav central bank (Friedman and Friedman 1998: 291-293). Finally, in contrast, Milton Friedman rejected the professional work of Friedrich von Hayek, while accepting his politics, because Hayek no longer practiced neoclassical economics.

Mainstream neoclassical economists do differ over the type of institutions they recommend to organize the economy – economic democracy or technocratic planning, forms of property, and so on. On the one hand, by the late 1980s, planners and other more authoritarian neoclassical economists in the East and West continued to support more hierarchical institutions, such as large-scale corporations and a strong disciplinary state, deemed necessary for both competitive markets and central planning (e.g., Lipton and Sachs 1990). On the other hand, other neoclassical economists understood markets and planning as necessarily embedded in decentralized socialist institutions that would allow political and economic democracy (e.g., Stiglitz 1994). The usual focus on market versus planning, Hayek versus Keynes, has obscured the nature of neoclassical economics, neoliberalism, and what was at stake in 1989.

What was at stake in 1989?

Throughout the 1980s economists in Eastern Europe called for “genuine markets” and for radical economic reforms, but these calls remained within a socialist framework. Eastern European economists had long envisioned reform as a process that could move forward or backward, as “stages” or “waves” of reform, but essentially as a linear process, a single path toward a more successful socialist economy. The experience of recurring political obstacles to reform had made economists interested in radical economic reform, which, in the context of the late 1980s, meant “genuine,” competitive markets and socialist institutions, especially socially owned, non-state enterprises with worker self- management. The idea of achieving a pure form of market socialism that brought together competitive markets and socialist institutions evoked a great deal of excitement in late 1980s Eastern Europe and elsewhere. The transition offered the possibility of radical economic reform and the final realization of market socialism with actual workers’ power.

After 1989, however, the political opportunity structure changed. Political and economic elites interested in centralized authority in both corporations and the state shifted the policy discussion from socialist transition to capitalist transition. Only then did American neoclassical economics flow from West to East. Economic consultants, usually unaware of earlier East-West discussions and the continuous neoclassical work during socialism, found an unexpected consensus in favor of competitive markets and against Soviet state socialism.2 A strong state – much like neoclassical economics’ central planner – imposed neoliberal policies that undermined the markets, the businesses, the international trade, and the worker self-management developed during socialism. This destruction was done rhetorically in the name of markets and in practice in the name of old and new economic elites and hierarchies.

Fundamentally, neoliberalism privatized public goods. What characterizes neoliberalism is that individuals dispossessed societies of a variety of socialist products and institutions: companies, mines, workers’ resorts, cooperatives, squats, money accumulated through socialist trade and production, as well as socialist ideas or goals, such as workers’ power, decentralization, and so on. Looking back to Keynesianism and the New Deal, we can see these as appropriating the products of 1930s state socialist movements with the goal of saving capitalism. Similarly, more recently, neoliberalism appropriates the products of socialist and other non-capitalist movements with the goal, again, of saving capitalism. Therefore, 1989 involved accumulation by dispossession and the privatization of social property rather than a conflict between markets and planning.


  1. Americanization narratives assume that the active agents are American, while the rest of the world remains passively vulnerable to indoctrination and conversion. As with other scholars (Eyal 2003; Gille 2010; Lemon 2008; Rogers 2010), I realized that such assumptions are incorrect. During socialism, Eastern European countries had their own traditions of neoliberalism or traditions that could be distorted into neoliberalism. Recognizing the Eastern European origins of neoliberalism allows us to move away from U.S.-centrism or (West-)Euro-centrism. In this paragraph, one could replace “American” with “European” or “West European” to talk also about Westernization.
  2. Gil Eyal and I talk about this process (Bockman and Eyal 2002). Recently, I wrote a short explanation of neoliberalism intended for a general audience (Bockman 2013).

Works Cited

  1. Bockman, Johanna. 2013. “Neoliberalism,” Contexts 12(3): 14-15.
  2. ——. 2011. Markets in the Name of Socialism: The Left-Wing Origins of Neoliberalism. Stanford University Press.
  3. —— and Gil Eyal. 2002. “Eastern Europe as a Laboratory for Economic Knowledge: The Transnational Roots of Neoliberalism,” American Journal of Sociology 108(2): 310–52.
  4. Eyal, Gil. 2003. The Origins of Postcommunist Elites: From Prague Spring to the Breakup of Czechoslovakia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  5. Friedman, Milton and Rose D. 1998. Two Lucky People: Memoirs. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  6. Gille, Zsuzsa. 2010. “Is there a Global Postsocialist Condition?” Global Society 24(1):9–30.
  7. Krugman, Paul. 2013. “Milton Friedman, Unperson,” New York Times (August 11).
  8. ——. 2007. “Who was Milton Friedman?” New York Review of Books (February 15).
  9. Lemon, Alaina. 2008. “Writing against the New ‘Cold War,’” Anthropology News 49(8): 11–12.
  10. Lipton, David, and Jeffrey Sachs. 1990. “Creating a Market Economy in Eastern Europe: The Case of Poland,” Brookings Papers on Economic Activity 1990(1):75–147.
  11. Polanyi, Karl. 1922. “Sozialistische Rechnungslegung.” Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik 49(2): 377–420.
  12. Rogers, Douglas. 2010. “Postsocialisms Unbound: Connections, Critiques, Comparisons,” Slavic Review 69(1):1–15.
  13. Samuelson, Paul A. 1983. “My Life Philosophy,” The American Economist 27(2):5–12.
  14. Stiglitz, Joseph E. 1994. Whither Socialism? Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Return to November 2014 Issue


Media and Social Movements: Scholar Traces Source of Letter M

By JL Johnson

I spent last spring writing my dissertation proposal on social movement communication and the social structure of digital media, sometimes taking walks around my Mount Pleasant neighborhood in northwest Washington, D.C. A sign announcing the beginning of a school zone stands at the end of my street. Stuck to the sign is a black and white sticker of a cryptic capital letter M. On bad writing days, the M was a reminder that I was struggling to articulate a research project on movements and media. On good writing days, the M inspired wonder. What is this M? Who put it here? Why? What does it stand for?

I would walk east from my apartment to Columbia Heights, a neighborhood nearing total gentrification that historically has been a working class neighborhood for African Americans and Latinos. Ruby Tuesday now welcomes you at the intersection of 14th Street and Monroe Street. A community institution, the Hispanic Theatre Gala, survives next door, Z Burger offers grilled burgers, milkshakes, and fries for $15 at the end of the block. Across the street, corporations display their singularly colored banners at the maximum height allowed by city law. Bright red signs announce Target, the Washington Sports Club, and Staples. Best Buy’s neon yellow complements the attractions. Columbia Heights Metro Station sprawls out belowground. Expansive luxury apartment buildings stretch out to the playgrounds of Lincoln Middle School. The campus rests at the intersection of 16th Street and Irving Street.

16th Street serves as both an actual and invisible line that separates nearly gentrified Columbia Heights from my neighborhood, gentrifying yet resilient Mount Pleasant. By invisible line, I mean that community politics and neighborhood zoning rules seem to keep corporations at bay. By resilient, I mean that small businesses survive by servicing working-class Latinos. The presence of three Laundromats signals the absence of luxury apartment buildings. Haydees offers cheap enchiladas and margaritas. A bodega’s sign reads, “Los Primos Productos Latino.” This is not to say that Mount Pleasant is not gentrifying. A citywide Thai restaurant chain has established a location in the neighborhood. A locally sourced pizza place flourishes. An organic bistro is replacing a bar. The inexplicably named Marx Café hosts no communist conclaves, but its line-dancing night is popular with young white professionals. Sociologically, a conspiratorial link between line-dancing white professionals and the overthrow of capitalism would be ideal. Nonetheless, the M sticker near my apartment was not for Marx Cafe.

Sign that reads M Movement Media Communications Strategy for Social Change

Mount Pleasant Street, for all intents and purposes, runs diagonally from Park to Columbia. It is very short. A nondescript, red-bricked structure sits halfway down the road. This is La Casa, a multiuse community building. During one of my walks, I looked through a window to the right of La Casa’s front door, seeing the fair-trade offerings of an African boutique. Then there it was, to the left of La Casa’s front door, a small sign, white and blue, featuring the very M stuck to the school sign beside my apartment building. And unbelievably, the M stood for Movement Media, the combination of my two subfields.

After a few pass-bys, I found courage to cold-call the offices of Movement Media. I learned that Ryan Fletcher founded Movement Media in 2013 after spending more than a decade in a workers collective called Mintwood Media. Mintwood provided affordable communications and public relations management to non-profits and progressive groups engaging in social change oriented projects. Mintwood offered everything from campaign management to media coaching and digital media strategy. Ryan grew Movement Media out of Mintwood with a similar yet more focused mission to “create and anchor public relations and communications infrastructure to build movements, sustain momentum and influence social change.” Through its mission statement, the firm encourages within its own organization the very communicative relationships that it seeks to foster between movement groups and the public sphere. Movement Media focuses on under-heard stories. It seeks “healthy, honest, effective, and horizontally empowering dialogue.” Importantly, it serves as an outlet for social movement communication workers to do globally relevant projects that pay a livable wage.

Movement Media’s current clients can be loosely grouped under the umbrella of the political consumption movement, with a particular emphasis on food and environment issues. Forest Ethics is a non-profit organization supporting environment rights work to protect endangered ecosystems. It has helped transform Fortune 500 companies into best-practice corporations that better protect endangered forests and wildlife. Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap is a fair trade company. It produces organic soaps and oils while supporting campaigns for Animal Rights and GMO labeling. In the weeks following my visit to their offices, Ryan and his team of “activists by heart and publicists by trade” were extremely busy helping Fair World Project participate in the People’s Climate March that took place on September 21st 2014 in New York City, where they petitioned the United Nations to prioritize small farmers in the fight against climate change.

Concurrent with the People’s Climate March, Movement Media assisted in organizing and publicizing the 21st annual hemp industry conference and Compassion Over Killing’s annual Vegan Festival, both in Washington, D.C. It was not the best time to host a pesky sociologist, but Ryan graciously answered a few questions by email.

JL: You worked for Mintwood Media before founding Movement Media. Can you talk about your work there, and what about it led you to found Movement Media?

Ryan Fletcher: I joined the Mintwood Media Collective in 2002. Mintwood began in the spring of 2000 as a worker-owned and operated collective providing public relations and communications services to non-profit and social justice organizations. The collective was founded by a group of activists in Washington, D.C. who came together shortly after organizing for the Mobilization for Global Justice, a large protest and rally targeting the April 2000 meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank that focused on economic and environmental justice. Coming off the heels of the World Trade Organization shut down in Seattle, Washington, in November 1999, the project was founded during a really explosive and powerful moment of social movement activity. That energy went into the creation and continuance of Mintwood Media.

Mintwood began as a four person collective. It was basically an umbrella for activists working as contractors to share overhead and lean on each other for logistical, administrative and strategic collaboration. We did this work to throw ourselves into social movement work, and the collective helped fund many unpaid activist projects that each of us where involved in. From 2009 -2013, we ceased to operate as a collective when three out of five of the business partners left. When my business partner began preparing to launch a local ballot initiative, it became clear that it was time to end Mintwood and create a new entity that could better meet the needs of my clients. I formally launched Movement Media on October 1, 2013.

JL: What is the strategic significance of a Washington, D.C, location, and why Mount Pleasant?

Ryan Fletcher: I was born and raised in the D.C. area. It’s my hometown. Politically, I think it’s a logical place to be an activist. Our clients appreciate that we are situated here and that we know the D.C. political landscape and media. I live in Mount Pleasant. There’s a rich progressive history here of social struggle.

We are headquartered in La Casa, which has been an important space in the community for decades. It’s been a central meeting space for local organizers and activists. Benefits, film screenings and other progressive events happen there regularly. These are related to immigrant rights, housing and economic justice, environmental sustainability, anarchist, socialist and other left organizing, you name it. It also provides office space to the D.C. Language Access Coalition, a Fair Trade store, another progressive media project, and our business.

JL: Are Movement Media clients usually based in Washington, D.C.? How does a movement group partner with Movement Media? Can you describe the process?

Ryan Fletcher: Right now, none of our regular clients is based in D.C. But many of them have staff here doing lobbying or other work. We are often hired to provide support for protests or other events in D.C.  Location plays an important role in that. Many of our clients hire us in part because we provide a D.C. presence for their work. Typically we meet our clients by word of mouth and referrals from past or current clients. Occasionally we reach out to campaigns or organizations that are interested in working with, but mostly groups contact us. We learn about a group’s issue and try to figure out if and how we can help. Business is steady and sustainable enough that we can make choices based on whether or not the issue “speaks” to us and we can play an effective role in helping the organization meet its communications goals. Often we are too busy to take on new projects and will refer folks to allies who do similar work, like Aid and Abet or D.C. Action Lab. 

JL (after emailing a photo of the M): This sticker is on the back of a sign near my apartment, at the intersection of Newtown Street and 18th Street. It’s you guys right? How did it get there? What’s the story?

Ryan Fletcher: Not sure how the sticker got up on the sign. But yes, that’s definitely one of our stickers! I’m a fan of all things street art and love the concept of building intrigue and curiosity through imagery. The consistent placement of subtle and sharp images around the city is always something I enjoy seeing. Not sure how that sticker got up – but hopefully people see that sticker and wonder, what’s the M? What does it mean? It’s a fun way to engage with the urban landscape. I love artists like Banksy and Swoon, and even D.C.’s own BORF who do this stuff on an even more explosive scale.

We don’t know who put up the sticker, so the mystery of the M is not completely solved. Nonetheless, Ryan might be pleased to know that my interaction with the sticker led to the discovery of his firm, and hopefully their work will interest sociologists looking at social movements and communications.

Isn’t that like most things sociological? We pursue clues, unveil much, but ultimately struggle to find clean and direct causes of our personal experiences.

Return to November 2014 Issue

Measuring Identity among Hispanics in the United States

By C. Soledad Espinoza

Based on the 1997 federal standards (Office of Management and Budget or OMB Statistical Policy Directive No. 15), the U.S. Census Bureau asks all American residents to identify a race category apart from identifying ethnicity on the decennial census. In the most recent 2010 survey, the question for ethnicity asks if the respondent is Hispanic/Latino1 or not Hispanic/Latino noting that, “for this census, Hispanic origins are not races.” Yet the included race categories relate to ethnic content (e.g. language), legal content (e.g. tribal enrollment), and geographic origin (e.g. continent-level or state-level). Various non-Hispanic origins are included in the race question as check boxes or written examples (e.g. Chinese, Chamorro, and Hmong). The census question for Hispanic origin is the only origin group treated separately and apart from other origin groups.

Though the census form is structured to require all respondents to report race in addition to a response for Hispanic ethnicity, many Hispanics do not comply in reporting a standard OMB race category.2 Instead, over a third of Latinos use the residual race category, “Some Other Race” U.S. Census Bureau 2011). In a large number of these cases (over 80 percent), Hispanic respondents write in what is typically considered to be a U.S. ethnic origin term like “Latino” or “Mexican” U.S. Census Bureau 2014a). These self-reported responses to the race question suggest that for many Hispanics, the origin terms are appropriate responses within the schema of the standard OMB race categories. That is, the terms are meaningful options that relate yet are distinct from the standard OMB race options.

In the 2010 Alternative Questionnaire Experiment (AQE), the U.S. Census Bureau tested a combined race and ethnic origin question as part of its planning for the 2020 census U.S. Census Bureau 2011). The AQE study shows that a different pattern of race reporting emerges among Hispanics when the race and Hispanic ethnicity questions are combined.3

The two-question format used on the last census and tested for the AQE.

The two-question format used on the last census and tested for the AQE.


Less than one-in-five Latinos report as white. In contrast, about half of Latinos report as white when race and ethnicity are asked as separate questions (U.S. Census Bureau 2011).4

As historical context, early legal precedence conferred institutional whiteness to people with Latin America origins despite persistent social exclusion from whiteness in the U.S. (Gómez 2007). Edward Telles,5 a Princeton University sociologist and author of Generations of Exclusion: Mexican-Americans, Assimilation, and Race (2008), provides an example, “Mexicans were long racialized in the U.S. southwest, i.e. popularly seen and treated as a race separate from whites, Chinese, African Americans, etc. But they were made citizens and thus de facto given white status under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848.”  At that time, whiteness was a requisite for U.S. citizenship and the protection of one’s legal rights.

“Mexican” was first included in the U.S. census as a race option in 1930. During a period of great racial fear, lack of civil rights protections, and political backlash, Mexican as a race option was removed in the subsequent decennial census. Since then, the Hispanic origin question has never been re-integrated with the standard (OMB) race options into a combined census question. Yet various studies find the Hispanic reporting of whiteness with the census-like (two-question) format to be highly inconsistent, difficult to substantively interpret, and, most concerning, inaccurate (Telles 2008; JBS International, Inc. 2011; Dowling 2014). These studies show that when researchers use a combined question format or follow-up interviews they find that many Latinos who report as white under a two question (census-like) format explain that they do not actually identity as white.

In the contemporary U.S. context, many Latinos and Latino scholars reject whiteness as the social reality of Hispanics (Gómez 2007; Telles 2008; Dowling 2014).

The formal categorization of whiteness attributed to Latinos is a contradiction of the “one-drop rule” experienced by Americans of black descent and the racialized experiences of Latinos and multi-racial persons within the U.S. Including Hispanic origins in a census race and origin question may better allow Latinos to self-report as they see themselves. According to Julie Dowling,6 a University of Illinois sociologist and author of Mexican Americans and the Question of Race (2014), “asking for ‘race or origin’ accommodates the different ways Latinos may see their identities.”

There are also other implications, Dowling continues, “my concern has actually been that people interpret the census racial responses for Latinos as a measure of skin color, when for many (or even most) it is not. Moreover,…the news media has at times reported that Latinos are assimilating and no longer facing discrimination based on the number who label as ‘white.’ And this really concerns me, especially because my research reveals that Mexican Americans in Texas are highly racialized despite the fact that many identify as white on the census.”

An additional issue is the equitable treatment of Latinos, which was reported as a concern in the AQE study when focus group participants discussed the two-question race and ethnicity format (JBS International, Inc. 2011). Dowling characterizes this as a disadvantage in the current census format, “many Latinos felt stigmatized by the separate question, while non-Latinos thought it was preferential treatment.”

Past researchers have characterized the distinction between U.S. race and ethnic categories to be arbitrary. In 1997, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) 7 recommended that Directive No. 15 combine the race and ethnicity categories into one question. AAA noted that “race and ethnicity categories used by the Census over time have been based on a mixture of principles and criteria, including national origin, language, minority status and physical characteristics.” Three census forms later, it is not clear if all American origins will be combined into one race and ethnicity question or separated across two questions. Planning for the 2020 census at the U.S. Census Bureau is still underway, and a final decision has not been made yet (U.S. Census Bureau 2014b).

Amidst concerns about data accuracy and validity, research suggests that the present census (two-question) format may compromise the scientific, legal, and social value of the important (and costly) information collected on race and ethnicity. The U.S. Census Bureau has a mandate to collect the national data that underlie civil rights enforcement, budgetary allocations, and electoral representation. It is a critical national and local concern that the agency may not be appropriately measuring identity for Latinos—the second largest ethno-racial group in the country (U.S. Census Bureau 2011).


  1. The terms Latino and Hispanic are used interchangeably in this article.
  2. The standard OMB race categories are White, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander.
  3. The AQE tested format includes the option of choosing multiple race and ethnic origin responses.
  4. The percent of Latinos that self-identify as black reported in the combined question format is found to be comparable to the percent of self-identified Afro-Latinos using a separate question format (JBS International, Inc. 2011). Other research shows that responses to the census-like format generally do not match color for Latinos despite some interpretations in the media that race reporting by Latinos reveal color variation within the group  (Telles 2008, Rodriquez 2000, Dowling 2014). Per Telles, “if persons that are perceived as Afro-Latino don’t see themselves that way, then we are unlikely to pick that up in a Census question on self-identification.”
  5. Dr. Edward Telles is author of Pigmentocracies: Ethnicity, Race, and Color in Latin America (2014) and Generations of Exclusion: Mexican-Americans, Assimilation, and Race (2008).
  6. Dr. Julie Dowling is author of Mexican Americans and the Question of Race.
  7. According to correspondence with the American Sociological Association (ASA) for this article, the ASA does not have available official statements directly related to the 1997 OMB federal standards (or the recent AQE format testing at the U.S. Census Bureau) on race and ethnicity.

Works Cited

  1. Dowling, Julie. 2014. Mexican Americans and the Question of Race. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
  2. Gómez, Laura E. 2007. Manifest Destinies: The Making of the Mexican American Race. New York, NY: New York University Press.
  3. JBS International, Inc. 2011. “Final Report of the Alternative Questionnaire Experiment Focus Group Research.” Bethesda, MD.  JBS International.
  4. Telles, Edward. 2014. Pigmentocracies: Ethnicity, Race, and Color in Latin America. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.
  5. Telles, Edward and René Flores. 2013.  “More than Just Color: Whiteness, Nation and Status in Latin America.” Hispanic American Historical Review 93(3): 411-449.
  6. Telles, Edward and Vilma Ortiz. 2008. Generations of Exclusion: Mexican-Americans, Assimilation, and Race. New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.
  7. U.S. Census Bureau. 2010. “Census Race and Hispanic Origin Alternative Questionnaire Experiment.” Suitland, MD: U.S. Department of Commerce Economics and Statistics Administration.
  8. U.S. Census Bureau. 2011. “Overview of Race and Hispanic Origin: 2010.” Suitland, MD: U.S. Department of Commerce Economics and Statistics Administration.
  9. U.S. Census Bureau. 2014a. “Race Reporting Among Hispanics: 2010.”Suitland, MD: U.S. Department of Commerce Economics and Statistics Administration.
  10. U.S. Census Bureau. 2014b. “The 2010 Census Race and Hispanic Origin Alternative Questionnaire Experiment.” Presented at Pew Research Center March 12, 2014.

Return to November 2014 Issue

Sociology’s Place in the Academic Labor Movement

By Marisa Allison

These days you don’t have to look too far on any college or university campus in the Washington, D.C. metro area (or in any other metro area of the U.S., for that matter) to see adjunct and other contingent faculty organizing for better working conditions. The hub and testing ground of what has become the modern movement strategy (the metro organizing strategy) began with colleges and universities in the Washington, D.C. metro area and has spread to institutions in Boston, Los Angeles, and Seattle.

Part-time faculty at George Washington University, American University, Georgetown University, Howard University, the University of the District of Columbia in Washington, D.C., and Montgomery College and the Maryland Institute College of Art in Maryland have all won collective bargaining rights by joining Service Employees International Union Local 500’s Coalition of Academic Labor. The burgeoning academic labor movement creates a rare and important opportunity for sociologists both inside and outside the academy to consider what role sociologists should play as the professoriate and institutions of higher education transform.

The business of higher education is no stranger to the precariously employed, though many would be surprised to find that the majority of the precariously employed in higher education reside in the faculty ranks.  Contingent faculty, as they are broadly known, are given many different titles (adjunct, lecturer, term faculty, instructors, postdocs, teaching assistants, etc.), yet together they now make up the majority of faculty on U.S. college and university campuses.

Nationally, adjunct and other contingent faculty are estimated to make up 75 percent of the total faculty in higher education, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s 2009 Fall Staff Survey. More frightening than the numbers of contingent faculty in U.S. higher education are the employment conditions they face, mirroring conditions historically encountered by the precariously employed in other industries: earning less than a living wage, having little to no employee benefits, lack of job security, lack of representation on faculty senates, and little to no advancement opportunities. The plight of contingent faculty is now slowly being revealed.

During the 2012-2013 academic year, two colleagues and I in the Public Sociology Association at George Mason University (GMU) took up the cause of contingent academic labor rights on our campus. GMU is no stranger to this phenomenon, reporting that 71 percent of their faculty for the 2012-2013 academic year are contingent faculty. Working with contingent faculty members at GMU, we constructed and distributed a campus wide survey to comprehensively assess the working conditions of the approximately 1,600 contingent faculty on Mason’s campuses. That survey is now available for open-source use to anyone who wants to understand the working conditions of contingent faculty at their institution. The survey instrument and report can be accessed on our project website:

Photo: Katie Figenbaum. 2012 March for Adjunct Faculty at American University in Washington, DC.

Photo: Katie Figenbaum. 2012 March for Adjunct Faculty at American University in Washington, DC.


The report was publicly released in early October 2014 with findings that have shocked the community, including low levels of compensation in addition to significant amounts of uncompensated work; minimal hiring requirements and being hired right before a semester begins; a lack of resources and access to a private space to meet with students along with few training opportunities to accommodate students with special needs; and high percentages of contingent faculty who provide their own resources to prepare and carry out their courses. GMU, however, is no different than most other institutions of higher education as the results found in this research mirror those found in national surveys of contingent faculty. The university has since responded and is taking action to address many of these problems, which is encouraging.

Though there are many ways sociologists can help the advocacy efforts of contingent faculty, one of the best roles sociologists can play in support of the academic labor movement is by using the skills we have as social scientists to conduct research and advocate for the collection of more and better information concerning academic labor at the institutional and national levels. Determining how institutional research offices at your current university or alma mater collect faculty data and encouraging them to include contingent faculty in their collection efforts would help improve the quality of existing data. Similarly, if the human resource office at your institution conducts a faculty work/life survey, advocate for the inclusion of part-time and other contingent faculty participation in its construction and implementation.

On the national level, until 2003, the U.S. Department of Education collected detailed information about the academic workforce through the National Study of Postsecondary Faculty. With inadequate funding, collection efforts ceased at a time when national data has been needed most. Joining other voices in our community, and calling for the resumption of these collection efforts would greatly assist the advocacy efforts within the movement.

Afterword: The authors of the GMU contingent faculty working conditions report are far from the first Washington D.C. metro sociologists to address contingency employment in higher education.

Check out the work done by fellow sociologists: Dr. John Curtis, Director of Research at the American Sociological Association; Dr. Esther Merves Director of Research at the New Faculty Majority Foundation; and Dr. Rita Kirshstein, Director of the Delta Cost Project and Managing Director at American Institutes for Research.

Return to November 2014 Issue