Androgyny53, 2015 © RAZ Zarate | Flickr
EssaysFeatureSex & Gender

Social Constructs: Can’t Live With Them, Can’t Live Without Them

There was a time, not so long ago, when men were men and women were women, when hetero-normativity prevailed, with the alternatives relegated to the margins, in closets, and in the shadows of lesbian and homosexual hidden locales, which were constantly under attack. Under such conditions, two sociologists explored the constitution of sex and gender: Harold Garfinkel, in his illuminating ethnomethodological study of sexuality, a case study of “Agnes,” and Erving Goffman, in his nuanced analysis of gender advertisements. Neither had a normative or political agenda. Both were careful observers of social life, and came to their specific insights as part of their overall intellectual projects: Garfinkel in his studies of the active way common sense is constituted and sustained, and Goffman in his studies of the drama in social order. …

Illustration of Hannah Arendt "Hannah-Arendt3" ©  Ben Northern | Flickr
O.O.P.S.Theory & Practice

Arendt’s Plurology

The sociologist reading Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition is bound to squint at the page in puzzlement when Arendt gives her definition of society. So would, I think, most readers of the text. Arendt’s fondness for assigning new meanings to commonly used words is most perfectly demonstrated in that moment when she nonchalantly declares that “society” is a distinctly modern phenomenon: the intrusion of the private sphere into the public, resulting in a massive emptying of the value of human association.

Illustration of Hannah Arendt "Hannah-Arendt3" ©  Ben Northern | Flickr
EssaysLiberal Democracy in QuestionTheory & Practice

Hannah and Me: Understanding Politics in Dark Times

Contrary to the suggestion of my informal title, I did not study with Hannah Arendt, nor were we ever colleagues, although I missed both experiences only by a bit. I was a graduate student in the early 1970s in one of the universities where she last taught, the University of Chicago, and my first and only long term position, at the New School for Social Research, was her primary American academic home.

BIG DATA © DARPA | Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency
EssaysMedia & Publics

The Big Issue with Big Data: Who Do You Think I Am?

Big data is all the buzz in business and government. The assumption is that meta-data — data about who communicates with whom, when, where, in which sequences and networks — can generate ever more comprehensive and granular accounts of everyday life and social practices across global space and in real time. For business, the bit trails that we all leave behind become ways of predicting where — to which goods and services — those trails will take us in the future. For government, those same trails bear witness to what friends as well as enemies already did, or may do in the future, as indicated by Edward Snowden’s recent revelations of National Security Agency activities.

The various legal, ethical, and political concerns about the protection of the individual’s privacy from spam and surveillance are evident. However, the emerging digital infrastructure raises a more general and fundamental issue about the rights of citizens in their roles as communicators in the contemporary media environment. …

Max Weber in 1894 © Unknown | Wikimedia Commons
EssaysTheory & Practice

The Social Condition

I am embarking upon a new project, the investigation of the social condition, identifying dilemmas that are inevitably built into the social fabric, and exploring the ways people work to address them. Some examples:

It is obviously important for a democratic society to provide equal opportunity for all young people. The less privileged should have the advantages of a good education. This is certainly a most fundamental requirement for equal opportunity. On the other hand, it is just as certain that a good society, democratic and otherwise, should encourage and enable parents to provide the best, to present the world as they know and appreciate it, to their children: to read to them, to introduce them to the fine arts and sciences, and to take them on interesting trips, both near and far. But not all parents can do this as effectively, some have the means, some don’t. Democratic education and caring for one’s children are in tension. The social bonds of citizenship and the social bonds of family are necessarily in tension. This tension, in many variations, defines a significant dimension of the social condition…