Home » Academia » To Diversify Sociology, We Need To Embrace Scholar-Activism As Legitimate Sociological Work

To Diversify Sociology, We Need To Embrace Scholar-Activism As Legitimate Sociological Work

Image: Dr. Eric Anthony Grollman at a March 24, 2012 protest in Bloomington, Indiana after George Zimmerman murdered Trayvon Martin. Sign reads: “Trayvon Martin. His crime – being born Black. The punishment — execution. This must stop.”

Last week, I served as a panelist on a townhall on diversity, inclusion, and equity in the discipline of sociology at the 2018 annual meeting of the American Sociological Association (ASA) in Philadelphia, PA. I was kindly invited to participate in this important conversation by organizers Dr. Victor Ray (@victorerikray) and David G. Embrick (@dgembrick), and ASA president Eduardo Bonilla-Silva. Presided by Dr. Austin W. Ashe, the townhall also featured fellow panelists Drs. Antonia M. Randolph (@baldwinvidal), Salvador Vidal-Ortiz (@svidalortiz), Ted Thornhill (@profthornhill), and Natasha Kumar Warikoo (@nkwarikoo). As part of my commitment to breakdown the paywalls of academic journals, classrooms, and conferences, I share my remarks from the townhall below.

Image: Drs. Salvador Vidal-Ortiz, Natasha Kumar Warikoo, Ted Thornhill, Antonia Randolph, and Eric Anthony Grollman, panelists on the 2018 ASA townhall entitled, “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Sociology”

The failure of sociology to become a truly diverse and inclusive discipline is partly due to its aversion to scholar-activism. Thus, the disciplinary project to diversify sociology requires us to embrace activism. This is a simple point, but it remains a controversial one in sociology, especially within ASA.

Unfortunately, I know well the antipathy that many sociologists harbor toward scholar-activism. Early in my graduate training in sociology at Indiana University (IU), I was explicitly told that the goal of the program was to “beat the activist out” of me — some sort of bizarre twist on exorcism or conversion therapy. In my last year at IU, Professor Fabio Rojas wrote a blog post to me on OrgTheory.net, entitled “Why Activism and Academia Don’t Mix.” While his intentions were well-meaning, I found it unsettling to have a professor in my department publicly put me on blast just months before I finished my PhD and started a tenure-track job.

When I pitched a joint ASA session between the Sexualities and Social Psychology sections, my main advisor snidely responded, “OK, Mr. Activist.” Somehow even putting academic subfields into conversation with one another constituted activism; the bar for what was subjected to the slur of “activist” seemed to fall lower and lower. It took me years post-PhD to acknowledge how frequently my grad school professors used shame as part of their effort to train me. Perhaps its even fair to use the term gaslighting to describe this professional socialization. No matter the term used to describe this intellectual violence, or their intentions, the impact was severe: I continue to work through complex trauma even five years since I graduated.

Throughout my career, I have repeatedly been told that my research on LGBTQ communities and communities of color is nothing more than “me-search” – work that is suspect because it is on communities to which I belong. Once I was told my interests are “too narrow” by a white person who now has even narrower research interests than me. Apparently sociology only values work that is exclusively or at least partially related to privileged people.

Let me fast-forward a couple of years past my 2013 graduation from IU. At the 2016 annual ASA meeting in Seattle, WA, panelists Charlene Carruthers (@CharleneCac), Mariame Kaba (@prisonculture), and Kimberlé W. Crenshaw (@sandylocks) delivered profound, soul-shaking remarks on the presidential plenary on Protesting Racism. (See a video recording of the panel here.)

Image: Charlene Carruthers, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and Mariame Kaba, panelists on the 2016 ASA Presidential Plenary, Protesting Racism.

Presider Aldon Morris then opened the floor for Q&A, around 01:26:00. With just 10 minutes remaining in the plenary, Dr. Morris took four questions and then asked the panelists to respond to them collectively. The first question came from fellow IU alum Dr. Abigail A. Sewell (@aasewell). Dr. Sewell remarked that they were an activist long before becoming a sociologist, though they came to sociology under the assumption that it would be a transformative discipline. Their expectations were not met; but, it was through Black Lives Matter protests that Dr. Sewell remembered that the Black radical tradition persists – but, apparently this lesson was learned “on the streets” (through protests), not “in the books” (through their sociological training).

What stood out even more than Dr. Sewell’s comments were those of another audience member – a European scholar whose name I cannot remember nor make out from the videorecording. So, I’ll just call her “Positivist Paula.” Positivist Paula accused Carruthers, Kaba, and Crenshaw of blurring politics and academic research, and questioned whether the panelists’ remarks could even be considered scholarly. Positive Paula declared, “Sociology is not an activist activity; sociology is an academic discipline.”

Mariame Kaba responded to Positive Paula, “[s]ome in the discipline [sociology] want to enforce and discipline others into not being [organizers]. And, I think you lose a lot of people that you could have in the discipline by those kind of rigid differentiations that are really only true in a few people’s heads.” To junior scholars, Kaba advised, “Don’t let them make you into something you are not, if you are already somebody who organizes. You are allowed to be both.”

Image: A June 2, 2017 tweet by Professor Joshua T. McCabe (@JoshuaTMcCabe) that reads “Dear fellow sociologists: Please stop doing this. I just want a professional organization focused on scholarship” in response to ASA Presidential Candidate, Dr. Mary Romero’s personal statement calling for scholar-activism.

The following year (2017), the discipline’s double standard for public sociology versus scholar-activism became more apparent to me. For example, last year, Professor Joshua T. McCabe (@JoshuaTMcCabe) tweeted, “Dear fellow sociologists: Please stop doing this. I just want a professional organization focused on scholarship.” The “this” to which he was referring was then-ASA presidential candidate Dr. Mary Romero’s personal statement, which promised a commitment to scholar-activism. Surprisingly, McCabe engages in public sociology, prominently displayed on his personal website, including essays he has written for National Review. (I and several others shared his tweet, and many responded to him. A year later, he accused me of leading Twitter mob violence against him.) For years, ASA has furthered its commitment to public sociology, even calling upon sociology departments and universities to consider this work as part of considerations for tenure, promotion, and merit review. To my surprise, the words “activist” and “activism” never appear in this report.

Public sociology, but not scholar-activism? This is not a simple matter of semantics. As part of Contexts magazine’s August 2017 symposium on the Charlottesville white supremacist riots, Dr. Kimberly Kay Hoang (@kimberlykhoang) wrote an essay entitled, “Are Public Sociology and Scholar-Activism Really At Odds?” Dr. Hoang argued that there is a long history of white men sociologists who worry that scholar-activists undermine the credibility of the discipline. She wrote, “[t]here is a contradiction in our discipline. Public sociology proponents are supporting a particular market-structure of scholar activism that separates the ‘resident expert’ from the ‘scholar activist.’ This form of public sociology favors research examining those struggling under and against the effects of power relations while marginalizing researchers scrutinizing how institutions of power operate to maintain relations of domination’.”

(Side note: Interesting, white men sociologists’ fear that scholar-activists [of color] will jeopardize their standing in society persists today; some have even talked of forming an Association of White Sociologists as they grow increasingly frustrated that more scholar-activists of color are shaping the trajectory of ASA and the discipline. You know, Make Sociology Great Again — #MSGA.)

Said another way, “public sociology is for white people” (to quote sociologist Rahsaan Mahadeo, a PhD student at University of Minnesota currently on the sociology job market — in a working paper entitled, “Marinating over the Anti-Ebony Tower.”) It assumes a detachment from “the public,” as though a scholar is shouting down from his ivory tower to the masses. But, one should never get their hands dirty with the messy affair of activism. Similarly, Dr. Hoang’s aforementioned essay asked, “who can legitimately do public sociology without diminishing the discipline’s ‘credibility as a science’?”

At the root of the activism-versus-academia debate in sociology is the discipline’s refusal to embrace the work of marginalized scholars as legitimate sociological work. Sociologists who are white, men, cis, heterosexual, wealthy, and currently without disabilities – and especially those who hold multiple or all of these identities – act as gatekeepers who wield power to determine what counts as legitimate sociology and what doesn’t, who is a legitimate sociologist and who isn’t. The dominant way of being a sociologist – seemingly detached, objective, apolitical – has long kept out critical scholars and scholar-activists, folks who are disproportionately of color, cis women, queer and trans people, first-gen, working-class, and people with disabilities.

This ideology was used to justify excluding Dr. W. E. B. DuBois from the discipline, and subsequently erasing his contributions as part of the “classics” in sociology. Dr. Aldon Morris notes in his book, The Scholar Denied, “Many contemporary scholars claimed that by educating the public in the Crisis [magazine], Du Bois was no longer acting as a scholar but had turned propagandist.” Former ASA President Joe Feagin’s (@JoeFeagin) 2000 presidential address turned 2001 ASR article, “Social Justice and Sociology in the 21st Century,” recounts the discipline’s move toward positivism, which was also a time when white men solidified their dominance in sociology departments. Excluding activism is antithetical to diversifying sociology.

Image: Top three reasons students go to graduate school for African American, Latinx, and non-Hispanic white students.

Today, the discipline’s aversion to activism runs counter to the reasons why most Black and Latinx folks pursue PhDs in sociology. As Dr. Denise A. Sagura found in a 2009 study of 700 PhD students (see Powerpoint presentation here), the top reason African Americans report for attending graduate school is to contribute to the advancement of minorities in the US, and the second and third most important reasons cited by Latinx students is to contribute to their community and contribute to the advancement of minorities in the US, respectively. The top three reasons cited by non-Hispanic whites were: 1) to grow intellectually, 2) to improve their personal occupational mobility, and 3) to make a contribution to the field – in other words, motivations not driven by a concern for making a difference in society.

To ignore what motivates people of color to become sociologists means that the discipline continues to center the interests of non-Hispanic whites. It means people of color – as well as other marginalized groups – find success in sociology by mainstream standards on the condition that they downplay their commitment to activism. Perhaps it means that those who refuse to conform drop out of grad school, leave faculty positions, leave the discipline, or leave academia.

To reverse this potential “brain-drain,” to cease forcing scholar-activists to conform or hide their activism, to end the practice of privileged scholars serving as gatekeepers who dismiss marginalized scholar-activists’ work as “me-search,” we are long overdue for embracing scholar-activism as a legitimate type of sociology. We are overdue for recognizing the contributions of DuBois, Anna Julia Cooper, Jane Addams, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Joyce Ladner, and other marginalized scholar-activists to the discipline.

In this increasingly post-truth, anti-science, anti-union, xenophobic, white supremacist, misogynistic, cis- and heterosexist climate – failing to embrace activism may be at our own peril.

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