Editor’s note: This post is part of a summer-long series, The Sociology of Trump. Every Friday RI Future will feature an essay written by a Brown University sociology student on an aspect of Trumpism. Read the introduction: Culture, power, and social change in the time of Trump.
What does intellectual responsibility mean in these times? Molly Naylor-Komyatte not only proposes, but illustrates what she calls a “Trump-vigilant sociology.” In its analytical question, the discipline still needs to understand better the conditions and consequences of neoliberalism’s failure and the “vehement animosity” of Trump times. She also extends the tradition of public sociology emphasizing empowerment, empathy and humanization by drawing on a number of recent sociological studies. Engaged scholarship is a critical expression of that intellectual responsibility Molly queries, and helps us anticipate its future in this final contribution to our series on sociology in Trump times. In the end, I wish to thank not only Molly and all the other contributors to this series, but also their fellow students in introductory sociology, Maria Ortega, my co-teacher in that course, and, last but not least, Bob Plain and RIFuture for this collaboration in extending the insights of sociology in these times. – Michael Kennedy, professor of Sociology and International and Public Affairs, Brown University
The election of Donald Trump as President of the United States pitched the nation’s socio-political atmosphere to new heights of tension, inspiring CNN analyst Van Jones to declare on air: “People have talked about a miracle―I’m hearing about a nightmare. It’s hard to be a parent tonight for a lot of us…you have this outcome, and you have people putting children to bed tonight and they’re afraid of breakfast” (Levine 2016). Explicating the rise of Trump and a violent, bitter cultural malaise, articulated by Van Jones and perceived by many as inextricably linked to Trump’s campaign, has stimulated commentators and pundits across national and global discourse.
Within the academy, sociologists, as students of human society, seem uniquely positioned to analyze these phenomena. Social analysis in the era of Trump must react to a time of flagging public trust in liberal institutions, the faltering of the so-called Washington consensus on the value of globalized free trade and market expansion, and resurgent white anger in racialized politics and burgeoning misogyny in debates of gender issues. Such an amalgam of trends demands analysis that is not only scientifically rigorous, but also attentive to the import of inclusion and hope. Ultimately, a sociology of Trump must adopt an orientation toward empathy and humanization as a direct response to the neoliberalism and vehement animosity of Trump’s time, prioritizing constructive progress against social retrenchment and collaborative extension of the sociological imagination beyond the academy’s confines.
To clarify the moral imperatives of a Trump-vigilant sociology, we can look to the major historical phases of the discipline. As Michael Burawoy demonstrates, sociology has historically responded directly to the circumstances of its purveyors, particularly circumstances of harm. His historical cartography suggests that the Ronald Reagan administration re-awakened the moral concerns that sociology sublimated to professional practice during the 1930s, and in the 1980s, neoliberal policies of “deregulating the economy, cutting welfare, starving education and privatizing public services” sparked the rebirth of a sociology directed at “the self-defense of society” (Burawoy 2007:242). This history parallels closely the potential of a Trump sociology. While the first quarter of the twenty-first century does not necessarily constitute a new wave of marketization so much as the globalization of extant neoliberal ideals and systems, this Washington consensus has driven much of the resentment animating Trump’s voter base.
Josh Pacewicz’s research on Iowan voters provides an example of this dynamic: When a manufacturing crisis, financial market deregulation, and reductions in federal social service programs devastated the Rust Belt’s cities and consumed local firms, local leaders seeking competitive grants to fund community programs shifted to a neoliberal model of economic partnership and abandoned more traditional partisan identities. “By the 2000s, local elites viewed statecraft as a technical, post-partisan marketing exercise” and pushed “tradition leaders, especially those still engaged in politics, to the public margins” (2016). The simultaneous decimation of local economic structures and loss of local political arrangements alienated residents facing material privation and community politics that no longer met their needs. The ensuing backlash against neoliberal economic principles was embodied in Trump’s promises to return manufacturing jobs to U.S. shores and essentially jettison norms of the global trade system (Da Costa 2017). One might also posit that these voters’ willingness to condone Trump’s most inflammatory rhetoric, particularly that denouncing immigrants, stemmed from their view of these actors as representing the freedom of movement—for human beings, capital, and competition—that the neoliberal economic order entails.
The task for sociology in the time of Trump, then, demands an emphasis on civil society and social inclusion in response to neoliberal economic policies and this philosophy’s most dehumanizing effects. More specifically, however, a sociology for this period must move beyond articulating how “market and state have collaborated against humanity in what has commonly come to be known as neoliberalism” (Burawoy 2005:7) into molding a positive foundation for responding to this marketization. When the social phenomena of Trump represent regression and reaction, sociology must escalate and emphasize its effort to, as Burawoy phrases the discipline’s original aim, “salvage the promise of progress” (2005:5).
If sociology for the time of Trump must remain “married to moral reform” (Burawoy 2007:241), defending an inclusive and flourishing civil society, this sociology must prioritize the empowerment of its students beyond the academy. Barbara Risman, a sociology professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago, outlined the import of these two aims in a piece written following the November election. Noting that the students she taught on November 9 “all felt devastated with the outcome,” she poses two questions that sociologists must address moving past this electoral cycle. Risman outlines, first, the matter of how “to inspire students to be civically engaged when they feel afraid and helpless” and, second, how to “do public sociology in a ‘post-truth’ age, and in a political climate where our government doesn’t seem to be interested in scientific evidence as a basis for social policy” (2016). Sociology for this time must embrace its reflexive relationship with the society it both studies and influences, recognizing students as actors not only shaped by their social context, but also possessing the ability to shape the future.
As Risman acknowledges, “many sociology courses leave students depressed at the level of inequality that they discover and the myriad ways in which power works” (2016). A sociology responding to the time of Trump must emphasize the generative power of the sociological imagination—in C. Wright Mills’ formulation, the ability to understand the interplay of the individual and society, of “biography and history” (2000:4). The Trump epoch demands generative academia with, arguably, an even greater intensity than the past historical periods through which sociology has evolved—at least in the United States—because Trump represents an ideology uniquely detached from any positive goals. In Keele University’s Mark Featherstone’s (2016) analysis, Trump’s “dark utopianism,” echoing the earlier Brexit vote across the Atlantic, “revolves around an aggressive desire for change which ultimately has no positive objective or narrative arc.” Such a would-be revolution, “purely negative” and feeding upon rage and hatred, does not and cannot answer the question of “what happens after the destruction of the old system.” The impulse to overthrow a system of globalized capitalism economically and socially decimating many communities—particularly some that previously experienced relative privilege, such as unionized manufacturing workers—mobilized popular resentment in both national electorates. But the Trump era represents the fomenting of resentment with no attempt to harness it toward solutions to alleviate this anger. To put a fine point upon the matter, Featherstone avers: “the problem of the politics of negativity, the politics of escape from the failure of neoliberal globalisation to meet human needs, is that they similarly have no positive vision for the future.” Sociology in the time of Trump can and ought to enter the hollow space beyond regressive tension; in Featherstone’s words, to address today’s global problems, “we need to come up with something more positive, more constructive, more inclusive and ultimately more workable in terms of building a sustainable future for everybody.”
Similarly, the second primary concern of a sociology of Trump ought to lie in the extension of sociological analysis beyond the academy, to new public audiences and to new spheres of activity. Risman notes the need for sociology to disseminate its research, evidence, and ideas “beyond the echo chamber of urban college-educated America, and talk to those citizens who feel left behind” (2016). A discourse of resentment and corresponding awareness of the alienated has become prominent in the Trump era, and sociology cannot effectively function for the moral defense of society without engaging this dynamic constructively. Particularly when Trump’s rise has been dubbed a “post-truth” period in which objective fact no longer holds sway over the beliefs of a substantial portion of the U.S. (or worldwide) population, sociology must win the argument for the importance of knowledge and intellectualism over again. Challenging disregard for fact may take the form of seeking space for sociologists in broader media types, as well as direct interpersonal engagement with the communities expressing alienation from the nation’s socio-economic system. These communities include those who channeled this resentment into votes for Trump, but also those, such as undocumented immigrants and Muslims, who now see their humanity denigrated by the current administration.
To align its methodology with a foundation of moral reform, a Trump-aware rendition of sociological analysis should emphasize humanizing ethnography in conjunction with systems-level data. Recognizing ethnography and similar qualitative methods as valuable data sources can address one of the primary challenges facing sociology in the time of Trump: in the words of Michael McQuarrie of the London School of Economics and Political Science (2016), many sociologists avoid studying working-class and low-income white people “as if understanding Trump voters amounts to moral complicity with their most odious views.” This belief is fundamentally misguided: sociology in the time of Trump must not mistake a commitment to progress and inclusivity for a need to ignore the very reactionary politics presently challenging these values. Indeed, sociology must study exactly these matters—and do so in a way employing not only observation but also empathy—because, in McQuarrie’s words, “sensitivity towards others is not moral complicity but a necessary tool for sociological understanding and winning social facts, especially when we find our subjects to be different or objectionable.”
Lisa M. Martinez of the University of Denver echoes McQuarrie’s admonition, noting that sociologists “can use the tools of our discipline to understand and analyze the factors that led to the deep divisions in our country” and translate this knowledge into “informed action” in politics and in activism (2016:7). Yet sociology cannot address the role of racism, sexism, and xenophobia in society without studying these phenomena, no matter how repugnant sociologists may find them. A new model of sociology must thus draw upon the classical methodology of Max Weber, specifically his principle of verstehen: comprehending both the context and the intention of human behavior empathically (McQuarrie 2016). Ethnographic research offers a technique quite amenable to Weber’s principle, as the ethnographer describes the experiences of cultures and communities but also adds to her observation an interest in how these details construct meaning in human life (Hoey 2013). This method allows the narratives and experiences of subjects to emerge from the encounter rather than be imposed upon it; such a framework provides a fertile ground for verstehen to thrive.
It is worth recognizing, however, that the opportunity of ethnography only exists in the method’s most effective form. The ethnographic book On the Run (2014), in which Alice Goffman details the enormity of state criminalization in the lives of members of a low-income black community, demonstrates the potential for ethnography to misrepresent or even exploit the populations it describes. Though Goffman’s book became quite popular, a number of critics condemned her work for exhibiting “the ethnographer’s tendency to become ‘too close’ to her subjects, to forgo rigor and skepticism in favor of taking at face value the accounts that subjects give of themselves” (Lewis-Kraus 2016). Whether Goffman managed to “accurately identify and address [her] social position and its effect on [her] research,” effectively positioning herself within her own analysis, became an object of academic contention (Paige 2015). Even more concerning than these positional complications, moreover, is the risk of this research being conducted in an exploitative way. Sociologist Victor Rios framed Goffman’s work as a “Jungle Book trope”: a privileged researcher “visits the jungle, sees the wild animals in their natural habitat, loses her way and, thanks to the kindness of the beasts, lives to tell the story” (Lewis-Kraus 2016). Any research that reinforces damaging stereotypes or sublimates a community’s benefit to an academic’s professional benefit cannot serve sociology as a restorative discipline.
Obviously, then, the weaknesses of ethnography are not insignificant; however, this method offers a unique opportunity for social understanding. While all research, as a human endeavor, lies subject to contestation and criticism, the uniquely intimate nature of ethnography renders its effective practice by sociologists particularly important in the time of Trump. An example lies in Arlie Russell Hochschild’s analysis of the “deep story” of Trump supporters in Louisiana, an account of life as they experience it. Trump voters described feeling as though, while waiting in a queue for the American Dream, they have been cut in line by black people, career-driven women seeking new jobs, immigrants, and refugees. Hochschild (2016) describes these voters’ view of liberal politicians using their money to “help the line-cutters”: “The government has become an instrument for redistributing your money to the undeserving. It’s not your government anymore; it’s theirs.” This powerful image of these Trump partisans’ emotional vision represents the type of knowledge sociology must produce to understand the social and economic factors that culminated in the present moment. Statistics reflecting the number of local manufacturing plants that have closed in Louisiana in the past several decades cannot illustrate alone the animating force behind behavior rising to prominence under Trump—behavior exhibiting what sociologist Michael Kimmel deemed the “aggrieved entitlement” attitude of blue-collar American men outraged at their declining status (Jacobs 2016). In conjunction with—not instead of—structural and quantitative analysis, ethnography and other intimate forms of qualitative research can offer valuable data to a sociology attempting to generate moral direction based on understanding various communities.
Two texts on salient modern social issues demonstrate the value of this philosophical orientation and research focus: Saskia Sassen’s Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy and Chandra Talpade Mohanty’s “Under Western Eyes” Revisited: Feminist Solidarity through Anticapitalistic Struggles. Both these works explicate the violence of a neoliberal socioeconomic order, focusing directly on the schisms characterizing Trump’s election and ever-increasingly fractious governance. Sassen writes: “the past two decades have seen a sharp growth in the number of people, enterprises, and places expelled from the core social and economic orders of our time” (2014:1). She classifies this burgeoning logic of expulsion as a fitting analytical framework through which to capture “the pathologies of today’s global capitalism.” Mohanty’s analysis (2003) similarly highlights the role of marketization in harming human life, while also recognizing the gender oppression that has become hyper-visible in the elevation of an open misogynist to the presidency (Pearson 2016). As she observes, “It is especially on the bodies and lives of women and girls from the Third World/South…that global capitalism writes its script” (Mohanty 2003:514).
Crucially, Sassen and Mohanty imbue their theses with a normative evaluation: Sassen argues that “we have fallen under the sway of a dangerously narrow conception of economic growth,” one rendering institutions and organizations “increasingly geared to serve corporate economic growth” (2014:213). Sassen links this understanding of growth directly to the expulsion of marginalized actors and communities—for example, if sufficient numbers of people can be removed from mainstream economic space through incarceration, corporate profits can rise even in the face of a growing populace with evolving economic needs. Mohanty articulates her normative statement even more clearly, asserting that “it is by paying attention to and theorizing the experiences of these [marginalized] communities of women and girls that we demystify capitalism as a system of debilitating sexism and racism and envision anticapitalist resistance” (2003:514). Mohanty’s understanding of the import of race and gender, particularly when the United States has become increasingly legible as a racialized social system and one built upon misogyny—Trump’s rhetoric alone suggests that much of the electorate did not consider open bigotry disqualifying—illustrates how sociology can understand the social complexity of capitalist systems. These two works exhibit the basic concerns that ought to animate sociology in the time of Trump, crafting a moral response to marketization and generating foundations for social sustainability.
Ultimately, sociology garners an acute pertinence to academic and public discourse as Donald Trump seemingly heralds the apotheosis—or, perhaps, the arrival—of an epoch with a uniquely fearful and angry zeitgeist. A discipline conceived in the study of society and the shaping of society’s values possesses the potential to respond effectively to this era. This sociology must retain the field’s past commitment to the moral defense of progress, concern itself with solutions to harmful social realities and communication with distinct and often detached segments of society, and incorporate research methods that serve humanizing and empathic goals. As a fundamentally human endeavor, certainly this model can and must evolve with the collaboration of its academic participants and the publics with whom they connect. A sociology attentive to the unique phenomena of Trump may, eventually, represent a potent response to resurgent bigotry and anxiety and an effectual tool for the construction of a greater, broader societal well-being.
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