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Oppressive Societies and Social Justice Warriors: Conversation With Joe R. Feagin

On January 2, 2020, The Sociologist (TS) interviewed Dr. Joe R. Feagin, Distinguished Professor in sociology at Texas A & M University. Professor Feagin has done much internationally recognized research on U.S. racism, sexism, and urban political economy issues. He has written 73 scholarly books and 200-plus scholarly articles. His books include Systemic Racism (Routledge 2006); Liberation Sociology (3rd ed., Paradigm 2014); White Party, White Government (Routledge 2012); The White Racial Frame (2nd ed., Routledge 2013); Latinos Facing Racism (Routledge 2014); How Blacks Built America (Routledge 2015); Elite White Men Ruling (Routledge, 2017); Racist America (4th ed., Routledge 2018); and Rethinking Diversity Frameworks in Higher Education (2020). He is the recipient of the 2012 Soka Gakkai International-USA Social Justice Award, the 2013 American Association for Affirmative Action’s Arthur Fletcher Lifetime Achievement Award, and three major American Sociological Association awards: W. E. B. Du Bois Career of Distinguished Scholarship Award, the Cox-Johnson-Frazier Award (for research in the African American scholarly tradition), and the Public Understanding of Sociology Award. He was the 1999-2000 president of the American Sociological Association.

TS: What are the most important insights you can share from your distinguished career?

Joe Feagin: Probably the most important one is in regard to sociological research and analysis on the deeper realities of highly oppressive societies like the United States. Sociology as a discipline has probably done more to uncover the surface cover-ups and concealing of the underlying realities of this country than any other academic discipline. At least, a critical progressive stream in sociological research and analysis has done that. But too much mainstream sociology, especially since the 1930s or so, has moved in the direction of instrumental-positivism and emphasized statistical methods, and focused on too narrow subjects so that people can get grants from mainstream grant agencies.

I think the main insight I have gained over the years from my own research, and the critical research of many other sociologists, is just how deeply and foundationally oppressive this country is, in terms of systemic racism, systemic classism, systemic sexism/heterosexism. We have very deep foundational realities of oppression that are covered up regularly by the mainstream media, by churches, by political and educational institutions, and by other societal means that elite white men at the top of society generally use to maintain oppression today.

TS: Did you say churches, as in religious institutions?

Joe Feagin: Yes. The original intellectuals in this country—when you go back to the 1600s when slavery was being built into our country—were mostly clergymen. Jonathan Edwards, for example, the famous evangelical 17th century preacher, and many others like him, worked to rationalize slavery. And they really started the broad white racial framing I write a lot about, which on the one hand sees white people as superior and virtuous, and on the other hand views black Americans and Native Americans as inferior racially and unvirtuous. They often framed this thinking in Christian religious terms, even before there were explicit “race” categories during the 1600s; early on, they preferred to talk about “uncivilized savages” referring to black people being brought as slaves and the Native Americans being killed off on the move westward.

The English colonists who founded what became known as Jamestown mostly considered themselves Christians. They considered themselves civilized. They considered the people they encountered, the Native Americans, as uncivilized and un-Christian. So, the first racialized framing really was in religious terms. They considered themselves virtuous Christians, and in their minds, they were encountering unvirtuous, uncivilized others. Pretty soon, in 1619, the white colonists in Jamestown bought about 20 Africans off a Dutch-flagged pirate ship. For the first decade or so, some of those early enslaved workers could work themselves out of slavery, but after that, pretty quickly, by about 1650, most black people were enslaved, including the children of those who had come earlier. The white colonizers also bought into the old religious myth about Ham, Noah’s son—that Ham had looked upon a naked Noah and had not covered him up, and thus Ham was cursed by Noah. It is a myth developed outside the Bible. The myth makes Ham an African, and Africans, later on, as inferior and justly punished with suffering. So, being enslaved is God’s just and divine punishment. And this is just one racist narrative, one myth whites used to justify slavery that was built into that dominant white racial frame.

They also took negative words like “black” from a deeper, older European tradition, and soon they started describing Africans negatively as “black,” with ministers like Reverend Samuel Purchas making color-coded references to what soon became the “races.” So, you have the leaders of the European colonists, who were often ministers, crafting this first white racial framing of Native Americans and Africans. To some degree, they import ideas from cultures in Europe. And then you get this color-coding that is imposed on everybody by the white leadership. If you go back into English culture, the term black is used in a lot of negative ways—the devil is black for example in Christian theology, and the angels are white. Other religious ideas are used to justify the killing of Native Americans.

And now, to the question of sociology. I would say sociologists have done a lot to help us understand racial mythologizing and racism generally; we have greatly developed ideas of prejudice and stereotyping. But the reason I started talking about white racial framing is that it is a broader way of looking at this oppression in terms of the racist interpretations, racist ideology, and racist emotions as well.

The white racial framing is more than just prejudice, which is just one key feature in rationalizing oppression. You’ve also got to add into that white framing the racist interpretations, narratives, and the emotions and racist imagery.

TS: How has sociology improved our world?

Joe Feagin: I think we have created more social justice warriors than just about any other academic discipline. By the way, social justice warriors should be a good term, but it has become a very negative term used by the alternate-right, by white supremacists, by white nationalists these days. Yet, earlier critical thinker-activists like David Walker, Harriet Martineau, W. E. B. Du Bois, Anna Julia Cooper, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, and many others were social justice warriors. Thinking about sociology, it is amazing that numerous black civil rights leaders have been sociologists—they have been sociology majors, or they took a lot of sociology courses.

Dr. Martin Luther King was a sociology major at Morehouse. With a strong sociological bent, Ida B. Wells-Barnett did the first systematic study of lynching called The Red Record; she was attacked and threatened many times for her anti-lynching activities. Her printing press was destroyed because whites didn’t like what she was writing. Du Bois, one of the first black sociologists, did very important race-critical analysis. Oliver Cromwell Cox, a brilliant African American sociologist—who was trained at the Chicago School by white sociologists but became very critical of them on racial matters—wrote the first thorough and extended study of institutional and systemic racism (in his book Caste, Class and Race). I think one of the very good things sociologists have done for this society—both mainstream and more critical public sociology—is to bring the subterranean reality of racial oppression (and other oppressions) into the light of day.

TS: In terms of racial and ethnic relations, do you think the United States is moving closer to the diversity within unity ideal or are we moving closer to the American apartheid?

Joe Feagin: I would say the situation is like two trains on the same track headed toward each other. On the one hand, you have a large proportion of white Americans that has always been white nationalist—holding onto strong ideas of white supremacy, holding onto the extreme versions of the white racial frame. Generally speaking, the Republican Party, especially since the Reagan era, has become the white party in America, and it has attracted whites who hold these strong white nationalist, supremacy views.

For a while in the 1980s and 1990s, the extreme white supremacy ideas held by many whites were expressed mainly in the all-white backstage—that is, for the most part, at that time, many whites would not openly tell aggressively racist jokes or make aggressively racist statements in the more public frontstage. But since about the George H. W. Bush era, more whites have become willing to express openly and aggressively white nationalist, supremacist ideas.

This happened because of the fear of more aggressive civil rights enforcement and the browning of America. The other train coming down the same track is the non-white demography train.

The demography train will happen no matter what. It is simply that each year the white percentage of the population goes down. And since most whites are not trained to value multi-culturalism, and most whites do not have an honest understanding of white racism, and most whites do not understand what it is like to be black or Latino/a in this country, it is easy for whites to be fearful, isolated, and afraid. They believe that once people of color are in power in the country, they will do to white people, what white people have done to people of color. That is not likely. California is a very good example of the change that’s coming.

When I was a young professor there, the state was conservative, now it is one of the most liberal and progressive states. There is a minority of whites who do not mind a multiracial, multicultural society. Then you have a great many whites now becoming more openly racist. Little has really changed for the latter whites, except their openness. The demography train that is coming down the track has already arrived in California, in New York state, and in Texas.

TS: What are the problems of group identity (hyper-group identity), when it comes to fostering inter-community relations?

Joe Feagin: There’s a long conversation there. I think back on the role of sociology. Sociologists have been kind of at the forefront (together with psychology) in dealing with racial identity and ethnic identity issues. A lot of that work has focused on self-chosen identities—the identity that people choose themselves, how they see themselves. Much less research, analysis, and theory has been done on imposed identities. These are identities that are imposed on you by people with greater power and the ability to do that. Within a racial-ethnic group (and this is true of racial identity groups), there are often ethnic divisions in terms of national origin; it is certainly true for whites.

However, people of color run into the reality that white people have disproportionate power that allows them to impose racial identities. That’s the problem of identity politics in this country. Now, the most important identity politics is what we don’t talk about, it is white identity politics. That is what white nationalism is about. When whites talk negatively about U.S. identity politics in reference to people of color, they are really indirectly featuring white identity politics.

TS: Who is your hero or mentor; who has inspired you?

Joe Feagin: Sadly, I have never had very good mentors. At least, not since the 7th grade. And that was true in college and in graduate school. I think (and this might be a bit arrogant) one of the things I do well is academic mentoring; I have learned how to do that pretty well, because I have not had good mentoring. I had some partial mentoring, but rarely. At Harvard, Gordon Allport was the closest to being a mentor; he was in his last faculty years, but he helped me get some modest research funding as a student. He was a kind and generous man, and one of the founders of modern social psychology.

Most of the people who have inspired me a great deal have been scholars and scholar-activists in the black critical tradition, like Du Bois especially. When I started reading Frederick Douglass and other black critical thinkers as a graduate student and young faculty member in the 1960s—for example Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), and many others—they had a profound influence on me. The 1960s and early 1970s were a very dynamic time for critical sociologists. Lots of critical sociology analyses, a lot of it outside of mainstream sociology.

And a lot of the (especially younger) sociologists of various backgrounds were beginning to read critical analyses of racism, classism, sexism. Kwame Ture’s book with Charles Hamilton (Black Power) dealing with institutional racism had a major effect on my research. And when I got to know about and study some of the early women sociologists, like Jane Addams and Harriet Martineau, I began to understand just how systemic sexism also was in this country.

I also had a political economist friend who got me to read Karl Marx for the first time in the 1960s. When I was in graduate school taking social theory classes, Marx was a non-person. My theory class had Durkheim, Weber, but no Marx. Talcott Parsons was a towering figure then at Harvard; and George Homans was my theory professor. Neither had any use for Marxist ideas and analysis.

I had one little course on the sociology of the Soviet Union, where Marx was at least mentioned and that was the only place I encountered Marx’s ideas during my undergraduate and graduate school years. You know, that was at the tail end of severe McCarthyism, which pretty much wiped out much Marxist thinking in universities. These historical and contemporary scholarly and activist figures were not personal mentors, but they have had powerful intellectual influences on me and my research over the years.

Return to January 2020 Issue



The #MeToo Movement and Sexual Agency: Implications for Sociologists and Professional Associations

The #MeToo Movement rapidly spread around the world in 2017, eleven years after Tarana Burke in Alabama founded it.  #MeToo brought unprecedented attention to the problem of sexual harassment and renewed efforts to combat it.  It also posed new challenges and opportunities for sociologists conducting research on the topic, as well as for those working within their professional associations to address the behavior.

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to share my reflections on this topic with the District of Columbia Sociology Society.  I discussed how the #MeToo movement was bringing renewed interest in three questions: (1) Who bears the risks and responsibility for addressing harassment? (2) How can organizations best promote gender equity?, and (3) How can workers express sexual agency in the #MeToo era?  The third question is the subject of this article.

Sexual agency refers to how people experience sexual desire.  As embodied human beings, people express sexual agency in the workplace (and elsewhere) and not exclusively in ways that are hostile or harassing. Some forms of sexual expression are consensual and pleasurable.  A number of critics of the #MeToo movement are concerned that all sexual behavior has become suspect in the wake of #MeToo.  This concern raises the question of how to respect workers’ sexual agency while also endeavoring to end sexual harassment.

The popular notion that there is a continuum of sexual violence illustrates how difficult it is to acknowledge sexual agency in the workplace.  The sexual violence continuum is included in many sexual harassment training modules.  Typically, the start of the continuum lists behaviors such as gender-specific jokes, sexual comments, and vulgar pictures—these are the least egregious forms of sexual violence.  Seduction and inappropriate advances come next on the continuum, followed by threats and sexual bribery.  Finally, at the far end of the continuum, physical assault and rape are examples of extreme forms of sexual violence.

Everyone can agree that the behavior on the far end of the continuum should never be tolerated.  But should behaviors on the starting end of the continuum be outlawed?  Some people may find pleasure in sexual comments and seduction, for example, and feel that these behaviors should not be equated with sexual harassment.  This was the argument made last year in a letter signed by over 100 French women.  They labelled the #MeToo movement “totalitarian,” claiming it had chilling effects on all forms of sexual expression, including innocent flirting and sexual bantering.  They denounced the movement for serving the enemies of sexual freedom, including religious extremists and political reactionaries.

Similarly, some feminist critics fear that the #MeToo movement is taking a step backward by embracing an older Victorian notion of women’s sexual purity. They argue that nonconsenting behaviors should be forbidden, of course, but women should also be treated as sexual agents who can and do pursue erotic pleasure at work.  Some who work in queer spaces, which may be experienced as liberating and not oppressive, share these feelings.

Implications for sociological researchers. 

To incorporate sexual agency into our research, sociologists must pay more attention to how people actually decide what constitutes consensual and pleasurable sexual behavior on the one hand, versus harassment and assault on the other.  Unfortunately, many studies of sexual harassment omit any consideration of sexual agency whatsoever.  Many scholars rely instead on standardized questionnaires that pre-define what constitutes harassment, the most popular of which is the “Sexual Experiences Questionnaire” (SEQ), first developed by psychologist Louise Fitzgerald and her colleagues in 1988.

Here are some sample items:

  • Have you ever been in a situation where a supervisor or coworker habitually told suggestive stories or offensive jokes?
  • Have you ever been in a situation where a supervisor or coworker attempted to establish a romantic sexual relationship with you despite your attempts to discourage him?
  • Have you ever been in a situation where you felt you were being subtly bribed with some sort of reward (e.g., preferential treatment) to engage in sexual behavior with a coworker?
  • Have you ever been in a situation where you actually experienced negative consequences for refusing to engage in sexual activity with a coworker?
  • Have you ever been in a situation where a coworker made unwanted attempts to stroke or fondle you (e.g., stroking your leg or neck, touching your breast, etc.). (Fitzgerald et al. 1995, p. 428)

This questionnaire is the current gold standard for conducting research on sexual harassment in the workplace.

The recent National Academies of Sciences report on sexual harassment explicitly endorses the SEQ, calling it “the most widely used and well-validated instrument available for measuring sexual harassment” (2018, 170).



Looked at from the perspective of sexual agency, however, the survey appears one-sided.  Implied in these measures is the notion that all sexual behaviors are harmful.  These items are also heterosexist:  men are predators; women are victims (meanwhile Tarana Burke insists that the #MeToo movement is for all survivors).  Most importantly, this research lets the expert decide what is and is not sexual harassment.  In other words, these measures deny sexual agency to respondents.

What happens when you let workers decide what harassment is?  Research shows that workers draw boundary lines at work between three different kinds of behavior:  (1) pleasurable and welcomed sexual behaviors, (2) sexual behaviors they are willing to tolerate, and (3) sexually oppressive and harassing behaviors.  These subjective definitions do not necessarily map onto the legal definitions of sexual harassment or the items on the SEQ.  Instead, workplace context matters.  In highly sexualized jobs in the service sector, for example, workers may tolerate sexual objectification because they understand it as part of their job description, while in other jobs, the same behavior may be experienced as demeaning and harassing.

In studies conducted in the U.S. before the #MeToo movement, my coauthors Patti Giuffre, Kirsten Dellinger, and I found that workers were willing to label behaviors as sexual harassment only under one of these four conditions:

1.If it is perpetrated by an individual boss against an individual employee.

2.If it is perpetrated by an individual of a different race, social class, or sexual orientation.

3.If it violates the norms of the work group.

4.If it has a severe impact on the victim.

Experiencing one of these conditions does not mean that a worker will make a formal complaint of harassment.  Rather, under these four conditions workers expressed a willingness to define unwanted sexual behaviors as harassment.

Workers tolerated—and in some cases even enjoyed—similar behaviors under different conditions (e.g., when perpetrated by a peer of the same race, class, and sexual orientation—thus potentially reinforcing social inequality).  Future scholarship should document how workers draw boundary lines in the #MeToo era, with an eye to understanding how these definitions privilege some groups while targeting others for punishment.

Implications for professional societies

The National Academies of Sciences report assigns professional societies a central role in the fight against sexual harassment in the academy.  However, incorporating the notion of sexual agency in sexual harassment policy is a challenge for professional societies.  How might they develop a policy that lets members define for themselves what constitutes acceptable, tolerable, and harassing behavior?

Even sociologists will not agree on these definitions.  For instance, some members encourage and celebrate a broadening of acceptable sexual expression at our conferences to make the ASA more open and inclusive, while these behaviors may be offensive to other members.  So who gets to draw the boundary lines?  In the work world, employers typically decide. They institute policies that define acceptable and unacceptable sexual expression, by, for example:

  • Controlling and/or mandating specified forms of sexual expression at work (e.g., dress codes, aesthetic requirements)
  • Outlawing sexual expression (e.g., anti-fraternization policies)
  • Imposing sex segregation at work (e.g., relegating men and women to different jobs and locations within a company).

All of these are flawed responses that do not address or even acknowledge sexual agency.  They remind me of parents’ efforts to control their teenagers’ sexuality.  Instead of this top-down approach, professional societies that are democratically structured and member-focused are committed to undertaking a more collaborative process.  This entails promoting a sociological understanding about sexual harassment and encouraging dialog about the issues—efforts that ASA is currently undertaking.  Moving forward, it will be important to engage the membership at all levels—including in sections and on committees.  The first principle of #MeToo should guide this effort:  building a community of support for survivors of sexual abuse.

The Promise of #MeToo

The #MeToo movement brought renewed attention to the problem of sexual harassment.  As an online platform, it acts as a megaphone, uniting the voices of vast numbers of individual workers who have experienced abusive treatment at work.  In a very short time, it has become a powerful force in society, inspiring fresh dialog about an incessant social problem.  This is a world-changing moment that no one could have predicted.  As Catharine MacKinnon remarked recently, “Women have been saying these things forever. It is the response to them that has changed.”

We are now having a public conversation about survivors of sexual assault, finding new ways to support their efforts to heal, and building new community awareness and commitment to fighting sexual harassment.  #MeToo is an opportunity for sociologists to enhance our understanding of sexual harassment and for professional associations to promote new programs and policies to address it.  In this article, I have argued for an approach that respects workers’ sexual agency.  This will not be an easy task, but it is a goal worth pursuing.


Fitzgerald, Louise F., Michelle Gelfand, and Fritz Drasgow. 1995. Measuring sexual harassment: Theoretical and psychometric advances. Basic and Applied Social Psychology 17: 329-43.

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi:

For Further Reading:

American Sociological Association. 2019. ASA Anti-Harassment Resources. (retrieved April 7).

Bennett, Jessica. 2018 (June 28). After #MeToo the Ripple Effect. New York Times.

Burke, Tarana. 2018 (April 13). This is a movement, not a moment.

Dellinger, Kirsten, and Christine L. Williams. 2002. “The Locker Room v. the Dorm Room: The Cultural Context of Sexual Harassment in Two Magazine Publishing Organizations,” Social Problems 49: 242-57.

Giuffre, Patti A., and Christine L. Williams. 1994. “Boundary Lines:  Labeling Sexual Harassment in Restaurants,” Gender & Society 8: 378-401.

Kipnis, Laura, with Dorothy Wickenden. 2018 (Feb. 5). Laura Kipnis on the State of #MeToo. The New Yorker.

MacKinnon, Catharine. 2018 (February 4).  #MeToo has done what the law could not.  New York Times.

Safronova, Valeriya. 2018 (January 9). Catherine Deneuve and Others Denounce the #MeToo Movement. New York Times.

Tambe, Ashwini. 2018. Reckoning with the Silences of #MeToo. Feminist Studies 44(1): 197-203.

Tolentino, Jia. 2018. The Rising Pressure of the #MeToo Backlash. New Yorker (Jan. 24).

Tortorici, Dayna. 2018.  In the Maze: Must history have losers? N plus one magazine Issue 30: Motherland.

Traister, Rebecca. 2017. This Moment Isn’t (Just) About Sex. It’s Really About Work.

Williams, Christine L. 1998. “Sexual Harassment in Organizations: A Critique of Current Research and Policy.” Sexuality & Culture 1: 19-43.

Williams, Christine L., Patti A. Giuffre, and Kirsten Dellinger. 1999. “Sexuality in the Workplace: Organizational Control, Sexual Harassment, and the Pursuit of Pleasure,” Annual Review of Sociology 25: 73-93.


By Christine L. Williams
President-Elect of the American Sociological Association

Return to May 2019 Issue

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?*


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



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.


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 = <>.

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. (

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).


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 (

Mount Vernon. 2019b. “Slavery.” Retrieved May 1, 2019 (

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"



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.


By Maria Valdovinos

Return to May 2019 Issue

Ask the Sociologist: Unsure about Subcultures

Dear Sociologist,

Are ethnic groups considered to be subcultures?*


Unsure about subcultures


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 (

*Question was edited for brevity and clarity.


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



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



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.


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 (

Netflix. 2018. “Interactive Content on Netflix.” Netflix Help Center. Retrieved (

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.



[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:


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?

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 or


CWE (Care Work and the Economy). 2018. Mission and Vision. Accessed via:

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

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