We had the chance to speak with sociologist Patricia Leavy about her new novel, Spark, which is designed to sensitize students to research methodology and critical thinking. Before we get into our discussion, here’s the back-cover synopsis.
Professor Peyton Wilde has an enviable life teaching sociology at an idyllic liberal arts college—yet she is troubled by a sense of fading inspiration. One day an invitation arrives. Peyton has been selected to attend a luxurious all-expense-paid seminar in Iceland, where participants, billed as some of the greatest thinkers in the world, will be charged with answering one perplexing question. Meeting her diverse teammates—two neuroscientists, a philosopher, a dance teacher, a collage artist, and a farmer—Peyton wonders what she could ever have to contribute. The ensuing journey of discovery will transform the characters' work, their biases, and themselves. This suspenseful novel shows that the answers you seek can be found in the most unlikely places.
You’re a well-known advocate for arts-based research which involves researchers in any discipline adapting the creative arts in their research. You’re also a leading methodologist and you’ve written many widely adopted methods textbooks. Did Spark come to be because you got the idea to combine these two things?
Well, sort of, but there was an event that really started the whole thing. A few years ago I was one of fifty people invited to participate in a seminar on the neuroscience of creativity hosted by the Salzburg Global Seminar in Austria. Receiving that invitation was like getting the golden ticket for the chocolate factory. It was an extraordinary opportunity and experience. The seminar occurred at the real Sound of Music house in Salzburg, which is a castle. The participants were a mix of neuroscientists, artists, and a few others from around the world. We all felt deeply privileged to be there and we had a strong sense of responsibility. As a methodologist, I was constantly thinking through that lens. It was during that seminar that the idea for Spark was, well, sparked. Someone was recently interviewing me and said the novel seemed like “an impossibility and inevitability.” I think that’s spot-on. For years I had wondered if there was a way I could express my research methods knowledge through fiction, but it seemed impossible. In Salzburg, I figured out how to do it. I wrote the outline in Vienna, the day I left the seminar. I put it in a drawer until the right time. Thinking about it now, it was completely natural for me to write a novel about the research process. My work had to go there. It was inevitable.
The protagonist is a sociologist. Can you talk about that decision and how you developed the other characters?
As a novelist I think it’s important to start from what you know. So Peyton, the protagonist, shares a few things in common with me. I also wanted the social sciences represented, and really sociology which is typically valued less than psychology. In order for the book to work, there needed to be characters from different disciplines, and specifically disciplines that aren’t necessarily valued equally. So I thought about what perspectives and ways of seeing the world needed to be at the table and I designed the characters around them. The sciences, social sciences, and humanities and arts all needed to be included. In terms of character development, each character is an archetype. I based them on the kinds of people we might expect in those fields as well as those who defy our assumptions. They’re composites of many people I’ve met over the years.
The character of Milton, the retired farmer, stands out from the others who are all scholars or artists. What does Milton represent?
That’s a great question. Milton is an important character. He represents the value of experiential knowledge. That kind of knowledge isn’t always legitimized or taken seriously, especially in the academy, and that’s a huge missed opportunity. Community-based researchers have figured this out.
Picking up on your last response, there’s a clear division in academia between disciplines, with some valued more than others. That’s a theme in the novel. What are your thoughts about how the social sciences are situated and how is this incorporated into Spark?
There’s no question that there’s an institutionalized hierarchy built into the structures of academia and research institutes. The system greatly privileges the natural sciences and mathematics over the social sciences followed by the humanities, and then the arts on the lowest rung of the social order. Even the divide between quantitative and qualitative traditions within the social sciences, with a clear privileging of quantitative research, reflects this larger power struggle. Quantitative social science is, in part, an attempt to make social science appear more “scientific,” using standards created in other disciplines. This hierarchy directly impacts research and teaching in many ways, including, how researchers and academics are paid, what research is funded and to what extent, what topics are researched, who receives prestigious awards and the kinds of work recognized, and how students are taught. These practices also result in societal ideas about what counts as knowledge and what is valuable to know. The institutional and cultural contexts in which we live and work have a role in shaping who we become and how we interact with others. So academics immersed in these inequitable systems in which some routinely have their worldview validated and others are relegated to second-tier status, may come to view people in other fields through these lenses. It’s not uncommon to hear someone from the natural sciences defend their higher earnings or larger grants with statements such as “my work is harder” or “my work is more important,” or “there’s no evidence your work has value.” These ways of being negatively shape the experiences of many in the social sciences, humanities, and arts who often do so much work for so little support and recognition. In the novel I wanted to re-create some of this hierarchy. For example, Liev and Ariana, the two neuroscientists, seem dismissive of other viewpoints right from the get-go. The Liev character illustrates how the privileging of science over other fields can result in arrogance, a sense of self-importance, and a range of behaviors that flow from that. I tried to show the effect on the other characters and how the effect differs across people from philosopher Dietrich going head-to-head with him, dancer Harper feeling entirely devalued, and visual artist Ronnie’s frustration. And in the end, the sciences alone can’t solve our real problems, which require transdisciplinary.
Why is transdisciplinarity important?
Contemporary problems rarely do us the favor of fitting discreetly into our disciplinary purviews; disciplines which one could argue have been artificially constructed in order to help organize and structure our professional lives. But the real world is beholden to no such system. We can look at any number of problems to illustrate this. For example, take rates of cancer. At first glance it may seem this topic fits squarely in the purview of biomedical science. But if we’re going to properly understand cancer rates, in an effort toward remedying this epidemic, many other fields are needed. When we start looking at disparities in cancer rates across different groups based on race, gender, and other factors, it’s clear there are social dimensions. Understanding cancer rates thus necessitates the social sciences and quite possibly critical areas studies such as gender studies and critical race studies. But medical and social science models still only get us so far. There are environmental factors as well and so we need environmental science. By pooling the expertise in these different disciplines, and likely other stakeholders such as patients, caregivers, and survivors, we have a much better shot at developing a comprehensive understanding of this multidimensional topic. You see the topic itself transcends disciplines and our approach to studying it must as well. This is not to say disciplinary perspectives aren’t useful. On the contrary, transdisciplinarity relies on multiple disciplines— each set of tools and perspectives is needed in order to build a framework larger than the sum of its parts. Cancer is one of innumerable examples. Every major health concern has multiple dimensions. Other topics do too. Bullying in schools, domestic violence, school shootings and other mass violence, are all examples of transdisciplinary topics. The list is endless. Our research practices need to catch up with the world so we can better align our most urgent problems with our best means for solving those problems.
How did your work in research methodology come to bear on Spark?
My work as a methodologist made this novel possible. It permeated my thinking about the project and the entire writing process. I wrote a book called Essentials of Transdisciplinary Research some years back and certainly the ideas from that are woven into Spark. But I would say my book Research Design was the biggest influence and stepping stone. I don’t think I could have written this novel had I not written Research Design, because it pushed me to consider all of the major research approaches, their strengths and limitations, in an in-depth way without privileging any approach over the others. I went into writing Spark with the knowledge from Research Design almost like a second skin, it had become so much a part of my thinking. One of my hopes is actually that professors adopt both books in their research methods class— Spark to sensitize students to the research process and Research Design to teach them the nuts and bolts. I could also imagine students reading Spark in any number of social science or education courses and later reading Research Design in their methods course. Even though these are totally independent books, and the novel can be read by anyone for pleasure, not just students, I think there’s a completion of thought between them.
Although you’ve written several novels before, Spark is different. What was the process like? How did you integrate themes of critical thinking, transdisciplinarity, and the research process into the novel?
Generally when you’re writing a novel, scenes and dialogue between characters are primarily there to move the plot forward. With Spark the scenes and dialogue and other interactions between characters are all there to deliver specific content and promote the major themes of the book. Of course you’re also moving the story forward, but no conversations happen for that reason alone. Each of the group conversations was designed to cover certain ground. It was through those group conversations as well as other parts of the novel, such as the protagonist notetaking in her room, that I wove the principles of transdisciplinarity and elements of the research process into the narrative. The characters might be having a conversation over breakfast, but if you listen to what they’re saying, the dialogue works on two levels. There are always clues or messages. Plot-wise, the characters are engaged in a process of critical thinking or problem-solving throughout the book and I hope that mirrors the process of reading the book— that readers are also trying to “figure it out.” As an author it was an incredibly challenging project, but I love a good challenge.
Spark is available here:
Spark at Guilford (use promo code 7FSPARK for 20% off & free shipping in US/Canada)
Spark at Amazon
Dr. Patricia Leavy is an independent scholar and bestselling author. She was formerly Associate Professor of Sociology, Chair of Sociology & Criminology, and Founding Director of Gender Studies at Stonehill College in Massachusetts. She has published more than twenty-five books, earning commercial and critical success in both nonfiction and fiction, and her work has been translated into numerous languages. Her recent titles include Research Design, Handbook of Arts-Based Research, Method Meets Art, Fiction as Research Practice, The Oxford Handbook of Qualitative Research, and the bestselling novels Blue, American Circumstance, and Low-Fat Love. She is also series creator and editor for seven book series with Oxford University Press and Brill/Sense, including the ground-breaking Social Fictions series and is cofounder and co-editor-in-chief of Art/Research International: A Transdisciplinary Journal. A vocal advocate of public scholarship, she blogs for The Huffington Post, The Creativity Post, and We Are the Real Deal and is frequently called on by the US national news media. In addition to receiving numerous accolades for her books, she has received career awards from the New England Sociological Association, the American Creativity Association, the American Educational Research Association, the International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry, and the National Art Education Association. In 2016 Mogul, a global women’s empowerment network, named her an “Influencer.” In 2018, she was honored by the National Women’s Hall of Fame and SUNY-New Paltz established the “Patricia Leavy Award for Art and Social Justice.”
Learn More about Patricia Leavy:
nfographics are “visual representations of information or data” (Oxford Dictionary). They are usually one-page rectangles that include easy to read and attention-grabbing statistics and concepts on any issue; infographics have become particularly popular among social activists because they can easily be shared on social networks. You might have come across a widely shared infographic on incarceration and education by Jason Killinger. You can see below that Killinger’s infographic grabs viewers' attention with clear statistics and strong icons/imagery while presenting the social problem in an easily consumable but persuasive manner. Assigning infographics in my sociology class on the topic of racism was appealing to me for these reasons – the assignment would require students to do in-depth research but force them to present it in a clear and consumable manner. In other words, an infographic can require students to organize their research and thoughts on racism in such a manner that I can evaluate their knowledge on, analysis of, and ability to address racism.
As mentioned earlier, this infographic assignment was used in a Race and Housing Inequality course; the class is a 3000 level seminar and had 16 students in it. First, I created 16 topics of which the students could chose (one topic per person); each topic reflected an area of housing, such as gated communities, mobile homes, public housing, and tribal lands. Students were first required to submit an annotated bibliography that had at least two peer reviewed sources along with other sources that provided contemporary data (no older than three years). In addition, students conducted a 10-minute interview with one organization that worked on their area of housing. Students created the infographic using a template on Canva.com (a free resource). The final portion of the project required students to present the infographic to another sociology course. The infographics were also hung up in a common area on campus for a week. The infographics were graded based on quality of research, attention to race and racism, contemporary statistics, design, and ASA references.
Overall, this assignment was a huge success. The infographics reflected considerable research into the topic and showed the students’ ability to convey important information on race and racism. Moreover, the students found the assignment to be both challenging and rewarding. Students were proud to share the infographics with campus and some gave their infographics to the organization that they had interviewed for the project. I think this assignment can be adapted for a wide range of courses and provides a solid alternative to a traditional paper assignment. Check out some pictures of the students’ infographics below.
Hephzibah V. Strmic-Pawl
* I provided the students with some supplemental resources such as links that describe what an infographic is and what makes a good infographic. If you would like to see this information, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Congratulations on the release of the Handbook of Arts-Based Research.
Thank you. It was a big undertaking but also highly collaborative. I owe a huge debt to the contributors for their generosity and to the team at Guilford Press for their hard work.
It’s a gorgeous collection and provides a different reader experience than most methods handbooks.
Thank you. When you’re flipping through this handbook you’ll see visual art, stories, poetry, comics, scripts, and music in addition to the more traditional prose. While I think the artistic examples make the book engaging, it’s also full of in-depth methodological instruction, hopefully showing something can be beautiful, engaging, and practical. I think it’s the kind of reference readers will pull off of their bookshelves time and again for inspiration and practical guidance. I know I will. It’s intended to be useful to individual researchers and artists but also is appropriate as a primary text in courses such as advanced qualitative research, art education, creative arts therapies, sociology of art, visual sociology, advanced qualitative research, narrative inquiry, and arts-based research.
For those who aren’t familiar, what is arts-based research (ABR)?
Arts-based research involves researchers in any discipline adapting the tenets of the creative arts in order to address research questions. An arts practice may be used during data collection, data analysis, and/or to represent research findings. There are numerous advantages of ABR, some of which are also goals in quantitative and qualitative research. Advantages include the ability to produce new insights and learning, description, exploration, discovery, problem solving, forging macro-micro connections, evocation and provocation, raising critical consciousness or awareness, cultivating empathy, unsettling stereotypes, challenging dominant ideologies, producing multiple meanings, conducting applied research, and contributing to public scholarship.
As a sociologist, how did you become interested in ABR?
My interest actually stemmed from frustration. Like many of us, I became a sociologist with the idea that somehow, even in a small way, my research could make a positive difference. I began my career conducting interview research and publishing peer-reviewed articles. I soon learned that no one reads academic articles. I mean literally almost no one. Most academic articles have an audience of 3-8 readers. One study found that 90% of articles are only read by three people, the author, their mentor, and the journal editor. I mean that’s truly astounding. When you consider the resources that go into this work, for little to no impact, it’s sobering. Academic articles aren’t widely read because they’re rarely engaging, they rely on excessive disciplinary jargon, and they circulate in journals that only academics have access to. I felt that the research I was conducting had the potential to be interesting to many, both inside and outside of the academy, but it would have to be written in a more engaging format and circulate in public spaces. As a methodologist I was already immersed in the literature about a various emergent research methods and that’s when I came across arts-based research. For me, ABR provided a set of methodological tools that allowed me to engage in public scholarship, and thus have some kind of real-world impact.
How does ABR fit into the pantheon of research methods traditionally used in sociology?
Historically we’ve been taught there are three major approaches to research: quantitative, qualitative, and mixed methods. In recent decades there’s also been increasing exposure to community-based participatory approaches, but they’re typically presented as a genre of qualitative research. Some view ABR the same way, as a genre of qualitative research. It’s true that qualitative researchers have added considerably to ABR practices. That said, I view ABR as a distinct approach to research. In my view, there are five major approaches to research in the social and behavioral sciences. Unfortunately the textbooks used in the field typically focus on those three traditional approaches which is why I wrote Research Design: Quantitative, Qualitative, Mixed Methods, Arts-Based, and Community-Based Participatory Research Approaches. Each of the five approaches to research are valuable. Each approach has unique strengths and is well-suited to particular kinds of research questions and objectives. The more methodological tools we have, the more questions we can ask and the greater impact our work can have. So I view ABR as fitting within the pantheon of research methods traditionally used by sociologists, as another valid approach, no better or worse than other methods, merely suited to different goals. ABR offers additional options for how we might conceive of and carry out research, and how and with whom we might share our findings. It can also be used in conjunction with quantitative, qualitative, or community-based methods, and frequently is.
What are the advantages of ABR?
ABR can be used to explore, describe, provoke, and evoke. In the social sciences ABR is frequently used to explore and crystalize micro-macro connections, disrupt stereotypes or dominant ideologies, raise critical consciousness, build empathy across differences, and prompt self and social reflection. One strength of ABR is that it’s uniquely able to produce engaging, compelling accounts of social life. This is connected to what is perhaps the greatest strength of ABR, the ability to contribute to public scholarship. Art is enjoyable and accessible in ways that other forms are not. By using ABR in our sociological research projects I believe we can reach larger audiences both inside and outside of the academy. When I say “reach” I’m not only referring to the materiality of access, but also reaching people on deeper levels that are more likely to make lasting impressions.
You mentioned micro-macro links which is at the heart of a lot of sociological work. Can you expand on that?
Connecting our personal biographies and historical sociocultural contexts is at the heart of the sociological imagination is Mills’ terms. He wrote about this as the promise of sociology and the arts can help us achieve that potential. For instance fiction allows us to present interiority, which isn’t represented in nonfiction. This unique capability of fiction as a form or writing can be put into service of linking the personal and the public, or the micro and macro. As an example, in my first novel, Low-Fat Love, the protagonist is often shown consuming popular culture and we hear her interior dialogue. Readers are thus exposed to what she consumes and what she thinks during consumption. Links are created between the images of femininity that circulate in commercial culture and how the character feels about herself. This can be achieved in various art forms in different ways. For example, in a play we might be exposed to dialogue and action/interaction that may speak to the macro context and we might hear monologues or voiceovers that speak to the character’s interior life, or personal biography. A song could be constructed so that each verse represents the macro level and the chorus represents the protagonist’s personal experience, or vice versa. These are just examples. It’s important to note that one of the reasons artistic forms are adept at making micro-macro links is because they foster what Elizabeth de Freitas has called “empathetic engagement.” As a consumer of art, you may metaphorically walk in the shoes of another, that other may be quite similar or dissimilar to you. In the case of the novel I mentioned, consider the difference between an article about commercial popular culture and how it can foster low self-esteem for some women as compared to watching a character that you have come to “know” and perhaps care for, and observing her struggle, as you’re exposed to her most intimate thoughts through interior dialogue. Not only can art forms help us show micro-macro links, but they can do so in ways that resonate deeply with the true potential of a sociological perspective because they can help us not only to “see” but to feel.
With the current state of affairs, do you think ABR is even more important?
We’ve been working on the Handbook for years and could not have imagined what would be going on in the world at this time, but it seems like the ideal time to release it. Among the many pressing issues going on right now, we’re living at a time when the arts and artists are under attack. Funding for the arts is being threatened and slashed, arts integration in schools is becoming an increasingly uphill battle despite all the research that points to its success, and academics in general are more and more under threat, often afraid of how what they say or write might be used against them. These are tough times for anyone concerned with freedom of expression and critical thinking. So to me, it’s an important moment to release the Handbook and make the tools of ABR available to more scholars. I also think that researchers in the social sciences and humanities are eager to pose challenges to dangerous propaganda and policies. Just as some have taken to forms of public scholarship such as blogs and op-eds, ABR provides another set of tools. Things are difficult things now, but that’s also motivational. I think we will see a massive outpouring of social justice oriented art and an explosive growth in practices in academia that consider real-world impact. I choose to be inspired, not discouraged. In the long-term this will prove to be an important time for ABR.
How can a scholar interested in ABR get started?
To begin, read about ABR it. A scholar interested in conducting experimental research would likely read a general research methods textbook and additional books devoted to experiments. The same applies here. Give yourself an ABR methods education the old fashioned way by reading, highlighting, note-taking. My books Method Meets Art and Handbook of Arts-Based Research are good places to begin because they provide background about the field and specific methodological guidance. It’s also important to consume ABR, especially in the genre you’re interested in. Look at different practitioners’ styles, note strengths and weaknesses, and start to imagine your own approach. It’s also wise to expose yourself to as much art as you can in that genre, not ABR per se, but straight up art. If you’re interested in writing a play, then read or see as many plays as you can. It’s also good to expose yourself to ABR and art in other genres. We can garner ideas about our work by looking to work in other genres. For example, as a novelist I have learned a great deal about dialogue by reading plays. I’ve learned about structure from music. Immerse yourself in art. Finally, you need to start practicing, even with small exercises, such as writing prompts. Skill in an artistic practice develops over time, requires discipline, and takes practice, including the ability to garner feedback from others and learning to ruthlessly self-edit. Try to develop a disciplined practice around your craft.
What skills do scholars need to do this work?
You need to be able to think like a researcher and like an artist. There’s a balance between creating structure, focusing on your themes or goals, communicating data or content clearly, all attributes of scholarly work, and thinking about issues like aesthetics, artistry, audience response, and the emotional tenor of the work, all central to art. Scholars who want to do this kind of work need to wear both hats. It’s also important to be flexible and open to messiness. I think this is true in any kind of research. Things don’t always go as planned. Sometimes methodologies need to be altered to fit new learning. Finally, developing a thick skin will serve you well. Develop your own relationship with your work that isn’t dependent on others. There can be an immediacy in response when sharing ABR that we simply don’t experience with other forms of research. If you write a qualitative or quantitative research article you may never hear from anyone about it once it’s published, and if you do, it’s usually not more than a few voices and it’s far removed from when you finished working on the piece. It’s different with ABR. It’s likely to reach a larger audience, to prompt visceral and emotional responses, and with some forms there can be an immediacy. If you put on a play, the response is live. People laugh, or they don’t; they get misty, or they don’t. While all research is open to critique, it can be more pronounced with ABR. Coupled with the reality that art, even scholarly art, tends to be quite personal to the maker, so it can be a lot to take in if you’re not prepared for it. I suggest getting as much useful feedback as you can while you’re working on it and then making peace with it once you release it. It can take a while to be able to do that.
You’ve published several novels as well as a co-authored collection of short stories and visual art, based on your research. Can we look forward to new creative works?
Absolutely. I love writing fiction. I find it more rigorous and challenging than nonfiction, and it’s also great fun. I’m currently working on a novel in a new genre for me. A couple of years ago I was one of fifty people invited to participate in the Salzburg Global Seminar in Austria, which takes place in the real Sound of Music house. The nearly week-long seminar focused on neuroscience and art. It was an extraordinary experience and inspired me to write a novel I had been thinking about vaguely since graduate school. After the seminar I spent some time in Vienna. I wrote the outline to the novel in my hotel room and then put it aside to let it macerate. Between where I am personally as well as where we are at this historical moment, it felt like the right time to dive into it. As a novel anyone will be able to read it for pleasure, but I’m writing it with academics and specifically methodologists in mind. The protagonist is a sociologist. All of characters have stirred in me for a couple of years. I can’t wait to introduce them to others.
Patricia Leavy, Ph.D. is an independent sociologist and author or editor of twenty-three books including Research Design: Quantitative, Qualitative, Mixed Methods, Arts-Based, and Community-Based Participatory Research Approaches, Method Meets Art, and the bestselling novels Blue, American Circumstance, and Low-Fat Love. Her work has been translated into numerous languages. She is also series creator and editor of seven book series with Oxford University Press and Sense Publishers/Brill and cofounder and co-editor-in-chief of Art/Research International: A Transdisciplinary Journal. She has received career awards from the New England Sociological Association, the American Creativity Association, the American Educational Research Association, and the International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry. In 2016 Mogul, a global women’s empowerment network, named her an “Influencer.” We spoke with Patricia about her newest release, Handbook of Arts-Based Research, a magnificent 738 page collection that covers the field of arts-based research, literary, performance, visual art, audiovisual and multi-method genres, as well as considerations such as evaluation, teaching, and publishing. The interdisciplinary handbook includes chapters by leading sociologists, such as Norman K. Denzin.
For many, the election of Donald Trump as the next President of the United States signals a return to more overt policies of discrimination against historically marginalized communities. The prospect of criminal justice reform seems particularly bleak under a Trump presidency. But people forget that social and political change are not exclusively the result of presidents wielding power. Social movements and other forms of popular resistance have often served as important catalysts for profound ideological and structural changes, and there is perhaps no better contemporary example than the Black Lives Matter movement.
As it happens, Donald Trump's ascendancy comes at a precarious time for Black Lives Matter because the movement appears to be engaged in an attempt to introduce a new strategy. In the immediate aftermath of officer Darren Wilson killing Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Black Lives Matter focused on getting the word out and convincing the American public that black and brown people are the disproportionate targets of police violence. More recently, however, activists have been trying to get people within the movement elected to public office at all levels of government.
This podcast is the second of two parts featuring Dr. Rashawn Ray, Associate Professor of sociology from the University of Maryland. In part 1, Lester Andrist sits down with Rashawn Ray to discuss what makes police violence institutional and what institutional racism looks like in the United States. In this latest installment, Dr. Ray discusses the success of the Black Lives Matter movement and whether it will continue to be an effective force for promoting social and political change under a Trump presidency.
You can find ten policy proposals for reforming the criminal justice system on the Black Lives Matter Campaign Zero website. We used an excerpt from an interview with DeRay Mckesson on RT's program Watching the Hawk. You can find the full interview with Mckesson here. Music from http://www.bensound.com. Banner art from Abigail Southworth
Glance at the news or scroll through your Twitter feed and you're likely to encounter stories about racism in the criminal justice system. Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Korryn Gaines, and Mike Brown are just a few of the names of African Americans who have been victims of police violence. One recent study demonstrated that Black males are 21 times more likely than white males to be killed by a police officer, and social class offered no protection. High-income Blacks were just as likely as low-income Blacks to be killed.
Despite these grim figures, it's also the case that the way police violence is discussed in the public is problematic. The problem is too often framed as one about bad officers, when it would be more accurate to talk about a bad system, or as sociologists would point out, a racist institution.
This podcast is the first of two parts. In part 1 (below), Lester Andrist sits down with Rashawn Ray, Associate Professor of sociology from the University of Maryland, and the two sociologists discuss what makes police violence institutional, what does institutional racism look like, and what can be done about it. In part 2 the discussion continues as Dr. Ray offers his thoughts on the effectiveness of the Black Lives Matter movement.
In this first podcast from The Sociological Cinema, sociologist Lester Andrist sits down with computer scientist (and brother) Sean Andrist for a discussion that connects the subfield of symbolic interactionism with robotics. Sean Andrist summarizes research on human-robot interactions, and together they explore the implications of this work on human-human interactions.
Sean Andrist received his PhD from the Department of Computer Sciences at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. His research has involved designing, building, and evaluating socially interactive technologies. He has been particularly focused on the development of communicative characters, including both embodied virtual agents and social robots, that can use humanlike gaze mechanisms to effectively communicate with people in a variety of contexts, including education, therapy, and collaborative work.
s hardcore fans of The Walking Dead already know, the show isn't really about zombies. The flesh-hungry walkers simply underscore the danger of the show's post-apocalyptic world and they occasionally propel the plot forward by forcing consequential decisions. At base, The Walking Dead is a meditation on the notion of civilization. In one sense, viewers are invited to grapple with the bounty civilization once promised by tracking Rick Grimes’ group of survivors as they make their way across a post-apocalyptic landscape. Civilization is the consumer society that is quickly slipping beyond the horizon, a point touched on when Michonne needs toothpaste or when Denise politely asks for a particular can of soda. It is the amenities the survivors once took for granted, like hot showers at the turn of a knob.
But more than technological conveniences and consumer goods, civilization also refers to social organization. In contrast to the fragile bonds that threaten to scatter to the wind each time Rick’s group is interdicted by a horde of walkers, civilization also refers to the notion of a bounded society, one that has been sedentary long enough to establish an organic solidarity: The Hilltop farmers know they must rely on Rick’s battle-hardened group to protect their food stores and Rick’s group knows the worth of the farmers who feed them. Civilization is more than a prison or a city block encircled by a wall; it’s a network of interdependent settlements, and this network is the difference between being trapped behind the walls and being protected by them.
Civilization simply denotes the conditions that make living in one moment different from living in some previous moment, but as the German sociologist Norbert Elias once observed, civilization also “expresses the self-consciousness of the West. One could even say: the national consciousness. It sums up everything in which Western society of the last two or three centuries believes itself superior to earlier societies or ‘more primitive’ contemporary ones. By this term Western society seeks to describe what constitutes its special character and what it is proud of: the level of its technology, the nature of its manners, the development of its scientific knowledge or view of the world, and much more.” Civilization is, then, an aspiration, but it’s also an idea people in the West have drawn on to set themselves apart from others.
Beyond sociology, there is also an impressive history of critically exploring the idea of civilization in tales of speculative fiction. To take just one example, the 1973 film Soylent Green was about a civilization on the precipice of ruin due to the pressures of overpopulation. The protagonist, played by Charlton Heston, discovers the key ingredient of the food ration upon which the teeming masses unknowingly depend for sustenance. “Soylent Green is people!” Heston’s character famously shouts. In Soylent Green, turning people into food signals the end of civilization, but it is also the surreptitious strategy that keeps bellies full, thereby just barely holding civilization back from a steep, violent decline. But the strategy cannot stave off what is a much slower rot from the inside. Heston’s character is horrified by his discovery, not simply because he was duped into eating people, but because everyone was duped. The unspeakable horror is that cannibalism has been institutionalized and it is now a part of the calculus of survival. Thus the line, “Soylent Green is people!” could have well been written as “What have we become!?” which is always the question one asks when they foresee the end of civilization. It might have also been written as “What will become of us?” which is always the question one asks while setting out to find civilization again.
“What have we become?” and “What will become of us?” are on the minds of individuals in Rick’s group as well, and having the luxury of multiple seasons, The Walking Dead has been able to offer answers. One such answer is posited in season five, when Rick Grimes explains that the survivors of the zombie apocalypse are the real walking dead. Huddled together in a dilapidated church, Grimes tells his group “We do what we need to do, and then we get to live…This is how we survive: We tell ourselves that we are the walking dead." The true threat to civilization isn’t really the undead, and Rick isn’t really worried about surviving the dead, for everyone knows how to stop the slow, shuffling advance of walkers. He is referring to what it will take in order to survive the threat posed by the living (Not surprisingly, “Fight the dead. Fear the living,” is the slogan AMC prints on The Walking Dead gear). What Rick’s group must become is a band of survivors, who will savagely execute other survivors in their sleep, without a trial, and as a speculative preemption of a future attack. Rick’s speech also reveals that as time wears on, the business of surviving is paradoxically becoming the greatest threat to civilization. Rick’s group seeks civilization, but fans have also witnessed his group slowly acquiring a new habitus, a new set of dispositions that lead them to regard all strangers as guilty until proven innocent and which lead them to kill first and ask questions later.
Whatever civilization is in this post-apocalyptic world, it is not Terminus and the cannibals of Terminus are not civilized. But these conclusions that “They are not like us” are also answers for those who worry about “What we’ve become?” and “What will become of us?” The effort to distinguish the civilized from the barbarians, friend from foe, is part and parcel of any quest for civilization, and it foreshadows a major development in the story.
he search to determine “What will become of us?” is one riddled with anxiety in desperate need of resolution. After finding a sedentary life behind the formidable walls of Alexandria and even a bit leisure time, the members of Rick’s group must come to terms with what they are willing to do in order to keep it. The Alexandrians have begun asking themselves: Is it okay to kill, torture, and maim those who are in every respect just like us, and who are desperate for a share of our resources because their lives depend on it too? This is Carol’s crisis in season six, and because she couldn’t come to terms with the killing, she resorted to a self-imposed exile. Carol knows that her friends aren’t the “good” group simply because, unlike the operators of Terminus, they haven’t broken the taboos of their earlier lives. The Governor’s group of season three killed people she loved, but she also knows that this fact doesn’t mean that he and the members of his group were the “bad” ones. All of her “enemies” were effectively following Rick’s advice to do what was necessary in order to survive.
Despite the immediate danger posed by Negan and his band of Saviors, I’m convinced that Carol’s dilemma will remain a lurking problem for the Alexandrians in the upcoming stories. But whether discussing storylines of The Walking Dead or the geopolitics of the real world, societies are in some sense always returning to questions about what they will do to maintain the promise of civilization and whether they can live with themselves in the aftermath. To resolve the anxiety, to kill, maim, and torture while retaining one’s sense of goodness, enemies are all too often re-imagined as something other than survivors “just like us.” When societies believe the fate of civilization hangs in the balance, new ideas tend to emerge about the difference between the civilized “us” and the uncivilized “them,” those walkers, the heathens, the barbarians, and the illegals of the outerlands.
Although not explicitly explored in The Walking Dead, this wall-building and fortification moment is the one typically accompanied by racial formations, where new speculations coalesce regarding the internal essences of those on the outside and those speculative essences get attached to some perceived set of physical characteristics. Thus the paradox of civilization, at least in the West and that which is explored in The Walking Dead, has been that in (re)building civilization, those inside the walls construct schemas for identifying those who are unworthy of it. That is, they construct new ideas about why outsiders are inherently uncivilized, less than fully human, or even demonic. Members of Rick’s group may have cheered beside Negan’s band of Saviors at an Atlanta Braves game only a few years earlier, but immersed within this new civilizing habitus, they’ve lost track of the humanity they once shared with those who now happen to call themselves Saviors.
Like the ocean zombies of Fear the Walking Dead, the American public has been swimming with zombies for more than a decade. Somehow, these rotting and reanimated corpses and the stories which they populate have proven capable of tapping into deeply held fears. In some stories, the flesh-hungry zombie is a symbol of the dog-eat-dog world of capitalism. In other stories, the mindless zombie is a thinly veiled critique of the mindless consumerism that threatens to infect all of us. The Walking Dead explores the zeitgeist of the current moment, which is one defined by an intensifying xenophobia and a fear that civilization may slip from our grasp. Their Alexandria is our civilization. Carol’s conscience is our own. We watch as they defend Alexandria from atop their walls, and then we return to the news of the real world and wonder why people are galvanized by the prospect of a wall between the U.S. and Mexico.
Vancouver recently ranked fifth in a global “Quality of Living” survey, an annual questionnaire that considers factors such as air quality, crime rates, political stability, and personal freedom before determining the degree to which a city is “livable.” However, often with “livability” comes (further) inequalities, as a complex combination of social, political, racial, and economic tensions contribute to soaring real estate prices and an egregious lack of social housing. In Vancouver, demand for housing far exceeds supply. Further, concepts like “political stability” and “personal freedom” are, in Vancouver, completely individualized; we celebrate superficial "ethnic" holidays that only seem multicultural. Here I am thinking of Yoga Day, which British Columbia’s premiere, Christie Clark, marked by shutting down the Burrard Bridge. But when it comes to demonstrating acts of true solidarity with resistance struggles our political leaders have their heads in the sand.
Just as social stratification has deepened in Vancouver, the city’s low-income population has grown in size and become more vocal about their socially and structurally produced living conditions. Nowhere is this more apparent than on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES), an impoverished yet lively neighborhood that has been significantly affected by the City Council’s ambitious urban revitalization program.
Largely because social programs and policies have both failed to address the deepening social stratification and have failed to generate compassion for those on the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum, the DTES is a place where folks who have lived through hardship and trauma often end up. As a neighborhood that holds people who have been excluded and marginalized, it's possible to see sadness when walking the streets of the DTES, but I think it's also important not to lose sight of the fact that the DTES is comprised of people who are invested in their community and who are involved in the lives of their neighbors, many of whom have shared similar life experiences. If you're willing to look, there is a lot of beauty there too.
But it appears that change in the form of "urban revitalization' is on the horizon. Urban revitalization is synonymous with gentrification, a practice through which residential and commercial developers alter the social and economic culture of a neighborhood by replacing older housing and services with new ones.
Gentrification is a product and mechanism of globalization; it is symptomatic of middle- and upper-class entitlement to low-income spaces. Gentrification is also a part of the broader Canadian fable of arriving and settling on terra nullus (empty land). White Canadians have been the primary beneficiaries of gentrification, so it is perhaps unsurprising that white people have often been quick to frame discussions of indigenous struggles and rights and discussions about hating white people. In that same vein, those who have the economic resources to begin the process of gentrification are often most likely to see themselves as saviors. In their eyes, they are simply making poor inner-city neighborhoods like the Downtown Eastside “livable,” though they rarely question what "livable" means.
The point I'm building toward is that a consequence of gentrification--a consequence of making low-income neighborhoods "livable"--is displacement, a term that denotes the forced expulsion of one social group to make room for a more economically and socially advantaged social group.
Gentrification may also be considered a form of structural violence. In sociological terms, structural violence is the process through which inequalities in access to power and resources are institutionally legitimated so that disadvantaged social groups are not able to meet their needs. In Vancouver, structural violence looks like building infrastructure on unceded indigenous land but mostly building capitalist institutions that reproduce hegemonic relations of power (that is, colonial relations of [post] colonial power).
Structural violence contributes to a number of negative health and social outcomes. For example, vital harm reduction services for people who use illicit drugs are concentrated near policing stations on the Downtown Eastside. Even though these services are legal, police are still able to confiscate illicit drugs and unused drug-using paraphernalia. The result is that many people who use illicit drugs forgo accessing these services, which puts them at an elevated risk of overdosing and/or contracting diseases such as HIV and HCV.
The criminalization of drug use often has the effect of incarcerating and ultimately dislocating people; criminalization doesn't address underlying hardships or issues related to the user's health. Yet the criminalization of illicit substances continues because as long as drug users are a visible feature of a community, the community will be deemed undesirable to investors, developers, and future community members. The point here is that while market-driven gentrification dislocates people, governmental policies also work to dislocate people in an effort to pave the way for gentrification.
Thus, gentrification contributes not only to oppression and negative health outcomes, but may also incite resistance and lead to social change. We must question whether Vancouver is truly “livable,” and for whom, while critically analyzing the ways in which violent social processes, such as gentrification, contribute to rising inequalities in both local and global contexts.
Nicole Luongo is a first year MA candidate at the University of British Columbia (UBC). Her interests include medical sociology and feminist methodologies. Her thesis examines the structural production and reinforcement of disordered eating among street-involved youth.
The War on Drugs: 5 Video Clips that Show its Consequences, Where it Came From, and An Alternative Approach
The war on drugs has been a controversial social policy, but data suggest that Americans are starting to rethink the war on drugs, and states are now softening drug policy. In this post, I curate 5 of our past video posts to provide a holistic look at the war on drugs, including its consequences, origins, and an alternative approach.
The War on Drugs: What it Looks Like
This short news documentary examines the war on drugs in Baltimore, Maryland. It shows how in Baltimore, which has very high poverty and unemployment, poor residents get attracted to crime and the drug business as a means of economic survival. Through the war on drugs, these people are treated as the enemy and punished with incarceration. Ed Burns, one of the writers behind The Wire, says "I don't know how much progress is being made because we're not dealing with the root causes." For example, jobs have been leaving Baltimore (and other U.S. cities) since the late 1960s as a result of suburbanization and deindustrialization. So, rather than addressing the root causes of drug use and trafficking, the war on drugs attempts to address the symptoms of these structural issues (see our full analysis here).
As my co-editor, Lester Andrist, previously noted, nearly 1 in every 100 adults in the US are now in prison or jail. In fact, the U.S. incarcerates more people than those regimes Americans typically regard as repressive, such as China and Russia. In this video from Last Week Tonight, John Oliver explains that 50% of the male prisoners in federal prisons and about 58% of female prisoners are there as a result of drug offenses. The same is true for 25.4% of all prisoners in state prisons. Human Rights Watch recently completed a study where they concluded that blacks were 10.1 times more likely to enter prison for drug offenses than whites. One result is that blacks constitute 40% of all prisoners under state jurisdiction, while whites only constitute 29% of all such prisoners, even though whites and blacks use drugs at similar rates. The video concludes with a review of some of the deplorable conditions prisoners are now forced to endure, due in part to a move toward greater privatization.
Beyond those impacts on the poor, racial minorities, their families, and their communities, what impact does it have on drug use itself? As the data below shows, drug use declined in the 1980s but--despite huge increases to funding for the war on drugs since the early 1990s, it has risen steadily. In other words, there is no relationship between punishing drug users/traffickers and drug use. In short, the war on drugs has destroyed communities and wasted billions of dollars but has not led to a decline in drug use or demand.
The War on Drugs: Where it Came From
If the war on drugs has been such a failure, where did it come from in the first place? In her book, The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander examines the rise of mass incarceration and some of the racial implications raised above. As summarized on the book’s website, “The New Jim Crow is a stunning account of the rebirth of a caste-like system in the United States, one that has resulted in millions of African Americans locked behind bars and then relegated to a permanent second-class status—denied the very rights supposedly won in the Civil Rights Movement." Alexander traces this process back to 1971, when Richard Nixon first declared the "war on drugs." At that time, the Nixon administration concluded that the most effective way to win elections would be to demonize African Americans and stoke voters' fears of crime. Accordingly, the US became much more punitive in how it approached drug use and trafficking, and specifically targeted African Americans in carrying out this war (see our full post from co-editor, Valerie Chepp).
The media also played a big role in helping to expand the war on drugs. In a previous post, Lester Andrist wrote how the NYT video below chronicles the role media played in exaggerating the scale of the cocaine problem and the dire health consequences predicted for the children of women who used the drug. As expressed by one politician, there was a belief that crack babies would "overwhelm every social service delivery system that they come into contact with throughout the rest of their lives." As the video explains, many people born to mothers who were addicted to crack have been able to lead lives free of the health complications foretold by newscasters. So if the actual threat posed by the growing use of cocaine was something different than the one portrayed in the media, why did the moral panic about "crack babies" take hold in the public consciousness? This supposed "epidemic" coincided with President Ronald Reagan's expansion of War on Drugs. As the legal scholar Michelle Alexander notes, in an effort to secure funding for the new war, Reagan actually hired staff in 1985 to publicize the emergence of crack cocaine, and a national tragedy involving "crack babies" was just the kind of story they sought to promote. In summary, politicians seeking re-election, conservatives looking to scale back social programs for the poor and racial minorities, and media with an interest in telling sensationalized stories, produced similar narratives to help drive people's fear of drugs and expand the war against it.
The War on Drugs: An Alternative
One alternative approach is to treat drugs as a medical, rather than a criminal, issue. This principle underlies Portugal's drug decriminalization policy. In 1999, almost 1% of Portugal's population were heroin addicts, and they had the highest rate of drug-related AIDS deaths in the EU. In 2001, Portugal decriminalized all drugs (i.e., they decriminalized possession but the production and distribution of drugs remained illegal). Their goal is harm reduction for both the individual and society. This video examines social outcomes after 10 years of decriminalization (see also this New Yorker article): serious drug use declined significantly (especially among youth), the burden on the criminal justice system eased, the number people willingly seeking treatment increased, and drug-related deaths and infectious disease fell. Despite people's fears, Portugal has also NOT become a haven for “drug tourism.” The program has been enough of a success that drugs and drug decriminalization are no longer a political issue in Portugal.
Of course, no two countries are alike. We would expect that what works in one country might work a little differently in a different country that has a unique history, culture, and political context. Nonetheless, the lessons from Portugal are informative and suggest that treating drugs as a health issue offers many advantages.
Paul Dean is co-creator and co-editor of The Sociological Cinema, and an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Ohio Wesleyan University.
For years I have been writing fiction in order to communicate social science research and ideas to both student and public audiences. There are many benefits to doing so. People tend to enjoy reading fiction (there’s a reason most folks elect to bring novels, not textbooks, on vacation). When we’re reading a novel we enjoy, we become immersed in the story. There’s neuroscience that supports what many of us intuitively know, fiction, and art more generally, are highly engaging. In fact, fiction engages more parts of the brain and has a longer-lasting effect than nonfiction, the focus of the field “literary neuroscience.” The pedagogical possibilities are abundant. Add to this that fiction is uniquely effective at promoting empathy, self and social reflection, unsettling stereotypes, presenting alternative understandings, and making micro-macro connections. Moreover, it’s widely accessible with the potential to contribute significantly to public sociology. These are all topics I have written about in the past. In this essay I briefly discuss three explicit sociological lessons interwoven into my new novel, Blue as a means of demonstrating “what is possible” by merging sociology and fiction.
I begin with a brief synopsis of Blue, followed by a discussion of three sociological lessons: 1. Cooley’s “looking-glass self” 2. Goffman’s dramaturgy, and 3. socialization and popular culture. Please note that Blue is intentionally centered around characters college students are likely to relate to (a tip for those writing sociological fiction, always consider your audience when you select a genre, style and develop characters).
Synopsis of Blue
Blue follows three roommates as they navigate life and love in their post-college years. Tash Daniels, the former party girl, falls for deejay Aidan. Always attracted to the wrong guy, what happens when the right one comes along? Jason Woo, a lighthearted model on the rise, uses the club scene as his personal playground. While he’s adept at helping Tash with her personal life, how does he deal with his own when he meets a man that defies his expectations? Penelope, a reserved and earnest graduate student slips under the radar, but she has a secret no one suspects. As the characters’ stories unfold, each is forced to confront their life choices or complacency and choose which version of themselves they want to be. Blue is a novel about identity, friendship, and figuring out who we are during the “in-between” phases of life. The book shines a spotlight on the friends and lovers who become our families in the fullest sense of the word, and the search for people who “get us.” The characters in Blue show how our interactions with people often bump up against backstage struggles we know nothing of. Visual art, television, and film appear as signposts throughout the narrative, providing a context for how we each come to build our sense of self in the world. With a tribute to 1980s pop culture, set against the backdrop of contemporary New York, Blue both celebrates and questions the ever-changing cultural landscape against which we live our stories, frame by frame.
Charles Horton Cooley “Looking-Glass Self”
There are many different theories in sociology and social psychology about how when we’re labeled by others we can internalize those labels. In the mainstream, people often talk about “self-fulfilling prophecy.” My favorite theory when I was in college, which I was so captivated by that I changed by major from theatre to sociology, was Charles Horton Cooley’s “looking-glass self.” As you may know, it essentially posits that our self-concept develops as we engage in interaction with others. We imagine how we appear to them and how they’re judging us, and that shapes how we feel about ourselves. This happens throughout our lives, in one form or another, moment to moment. Based on my personal and professional experiences I believe there’s a danger that we start to see ourselves one way or another because of something we did, something that was done to us, or how others see us and treat us. We can get stuck with an idea of one version of who we are, based on an overarching sense of how others perceive and judge us. But I also believe that we always have a choice. Not who we were yesterday or who we thought we were, but who we are right now, in this moment, and each one that follows. In Blue I used the relationships between characters, such as the dialogue between Tash and Aidan, paired with internal dialogue (revealing interiority—a character’s thoughts) to bring some of this out. My goal was to sensitize readers to how we judge ourselves based on our assumptions of how others see us. I then went on to suggest that in fact, we are possibilities and have a choice in each moment of who we are and who we want to become.
Erving Goffman “Dramaturgy”
Like many in our field, I first learned the basics of Goffman’s work in my early sociological theories courses. His theories of “back stage” and “front stage” have served me well not only as a sociologist, but in my own life. I often think about how we’re confronted with people’s behind-the-scenes stuff that we can’t see during our interactions with others. In other words, people have things going on that we’re not aware of and when we interact with someone and get a reaction we may not expect, it could be that we’re bumping up against a backstage we can’t see. For example, if your romantic partner is short with you in response to something you tell them and you take it personally, feeling hurt or offended. Their reaction to you may be based on a phone call they just had with their boss who piled unexpected work on them or a call with a parent that pushed one of their buttons. Their reaction may also be based on something much deeper, and less immediate, such as experiences being bullied as a kid or any number of things that you unwittingly bumped up against. You don’t know. Teaching this fundamental idea from sociology not only develops one’s sociological perspective, but has the potential to foster self-awareness and empathy in our interactions with others. I decided fiction was a good vehicle for demonstrating this. The protagonist in Blue, Tash, experienced a possible assault years earlier (when she awoke in her boyfriend’s bed after a New Year’s Eve party, naked between him and his roommate with no memory of what happened). In Blue I explored where we’d find this character years later, and how any trauma she may have experienced is impacting her in the present; impacting how she sees herself and how she responds to others. This is one example of how a dramaturgical lens was written into the narrative so that readers can see the theory in action.
Socialization and Popular Culture
One of concepts taught in sociology from introductory levels onward is socialization, the lifelong process by which we learn the norms and values of our culture. One of the primary agents of socialization is the media, or popular culture. As a self-proclaimed pop culture junkie, I’ve always been interested in how individuals select what pop culture to consume and how they internalize its messages. For 12 years I taught a course called Images & Power which investigated and critiqued popular culture. I continued to do so in my first novel. But while sociologists often critique pop culture, it has positive roles in people’s lives too. In Blue I wanted to show how we use pop culture and art to help us understand and get through our own lives. The pop culture we choose to consume may become a part of our identity and active in co-creating our experiences. I think at times we can understand our lives, things we can’t yet even name, through art. This helps explain why some people become emotionally invested in their favorite television shows, movies or music, watching or listening to them repeatedly. In order to unearth these issues in Blue characters are shown talking or thinking about the pop culture they consume, the themes there within often mirroring the character’s present-day struggle. The characters are often imaged in the “glow” of light from television or movie screens, their own stories illuminated by the stories of popular culture.
Patricia Leavy, Ph.D.
Patricia Leavy, Ph.D. is an independent sociologist and author (formerly associate professor of sociology, founding director of gender studies, and chairperson of sociology & criminology at Stonehill College). She has published nineteen books including Method Meets Art 2nd edition, Fiction as Research Practice, The Oxford Handbook of Qualitative Research, and the best-selling novels, Low-Fat Love, American Circumstance, and Blue. She is the creator and editor for five book series with Oxford University Press and Sense Publishers and a blogger for The Huffington Post and The Creativity Post. She has received career awards from New England Sociological Association, the American Creativity Association, the American Educational Research Association Qualitative Special Interest Group, and the International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry. Follow Patricia on Facebook, Twitter, and check out her personal website, www.patricialeavy.com