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Conversations in Michigan Sociology

As one of the largest and most methodologically and topically diverse departments in the United States, the Department of Sociology at the University of Michigan is well-situated to confront issues related to the discipline. Accordingly, considering Michigan sociology in particular, a more specific question is how might the faculty of the Department of Sociology at the University of Michigan uniquely respond to, challenge, or manage specific conditions in its pursuit of scholarship and intellectual engagement? These larger and more specific questions comprise the agenda for the department's annual Conversations in Michigan Sociology symposium.

Follow the accordions below to read a description of each year's "Conversation"; at the end of each section, you will find a link to the video of each event.

2011 - Interdisciplinarity: Is There a Common Ground for Sociology?

As a multi-method discipline, sociology is uniquely situated in academia’s growing investment in interdisciplinarity.   Its various methodological orientations – demographic, historical, qualitative, and survey-based, to name a few – foster bridge-building to other disciplines.   Comparative historical sociologists’ engagement of historians, survey-based and demographic sociologists’ connection with statistics, and qualitative sociologists’ collusion with anthropology are a few examples.   Furthermore, traditional topical areas such as race, gender, sexuality, crime, and formal organizations have been incorporated into newer disciplines such that sociology serves as both a formative contributor and a robust intellectual neighbor to fields such as African American studies, Latino studies, public policy, criminology, communication studies, organizational studies, cultural studies, social work, urban studies, and women’s studies, among others.  In each of these fields, sociology has maintained a visible presence, even if the value of that presence is variable across these fields.  

Topical specialization has facilitated interdisciplinarity in another, equally significant, way.  This is  reflected by the existence of 48 sections of the American Sociological Association (ASA)  that operate as distinct and autonomous sociological communities in pursuit of a scholarly agenda without regard for any continuity or consistency in promoting a generally shared outcome for or effect upon the discipline.  Of course, the proliferation of these sections does not, in and of itself, reflect interdisciplinarity.  However, as many ASA sections rather easily identify with and form scholarly and intellectual relationships with disciplines and disciplinary communities outside of sociology, this adds to the sense that a defining feature of the discipline is that sociologists have extensive, formally structured relationships to scholarly communities beyond the parameters of sociology, and those relationships often may be more durable than those occurring within the discipline.

Some argue that the emergence of interdisciplinarity and the organizational dynamics of the American Sociological Association have left the discipline without an intellectual core.  Instead, as those embracing this sentiment argue, sociology is little more than an amalgamation of research areas and communities that share nothing more than a commitment to some notion of the social as a sphere worthy of scholarly consideration.  Taking this into account, a looming question for contemporary sociology is what, if anything, constitutes common intellectual and scholarly ground for the discipline in an era of intense interdisciplinarity and (if considered from the perspective of the proliferation of ASA sections) seeming fragmentation.

The University of Michigan's 2011 Conversations in Michigan Sociology symposium dealt with this very issue.  The panelists were:

  • Ray DeVries, Professor, Bioethics/Medical Education/Obstetrics and Gynecology, Medical School (Sociology Ph.D.)
  • Muge Gocek, Associate Professor, Sociology and Women’s Studies
  • David Harding, Associate Professor, Sociology and Ford School of Public Policy
  • Karin Martin, Professor, Sociology and Women’s Studies
  • Yu Xie, Professor, Sociology and Statistics

Click the following link to see a video of the 2011 event:

Interdisciplinarity: Is There a Common Ground for Sociology

2012 - 'Sociological Theory' contra 'Theories in Sociology'

Sociology continues to wrestle with the matter of how to come to terms with general sociological theory as a part of the sociological enterprise.  At bare minimum, general sociological theory serves as a core element of graduate training programs and undergraduate program curricula, serving long-standing roles as a core part of the curricular content for introductory seminars in PhD. programs and as content for staple theory courses in undergraduate programs.  Otherwise, there has been considerable debate about what role such theory should or should not fulfill in the discipline.

Scholars who pursue their research in any of the various subfields of the discipline continue to draw more or less (and sometimes not at all) from generalized sociological theory as they pursue their research and teaching.  The distancing that some sociologists have maintained from generalized theory is partly due to the establishment of robust theoretical camps and models in the major subfields of the discipline (examples include the blossoming theoretical traditions in culture, gender, organizational studies, and race and ethnic relations, to name a few areas) that, in their minds, more effectively advance sociological inquiry.  Otherwise, some sociologists regard the work of classical theorists as well as more contemporary figures who have been defined as “macro” theorists or generalists (e.g., Bourdieu, Giddens, Habermas, Luhmann, etc.) as less relevant to various subfields in the discipline than it is for broader discussions of the state of modern society.

The Department of Sociology at the University of Michigan is a unique arena in which to consider the question of what to do with and about generalized theory.  Its faculty pursues field research of various sorts such that the department maintains no “in-house” generalized theorists, but rather various individuals who employ generalized theory to different degrees and with different intensities.  Hence, the questions motivating this year’s conversation are:

  • What role does generalized theory play for you in the subfields in which you conduct your research and reaching?
  • From the vantage point of the subfields that you work in, what do you regard as the fate of generalized theory in sociology (that is, what future promise or challenges remain for generalized theory in your subfields)? And,
  • Reflecting upon the discipline more generally, in your mind does sociology continue to need and/or benefit from generalized theory?

The University of Michigan's 2012 Conversations in Michigan Sociology symposium deals with this very issue.  The panelists are:

  • Sandra Levitsky, Assistant Professor of Sociology
  • Mark Mizruchi, Professor of Sociology and Business Administration
  • Kiyoteru Tsutsui, Assistant Professor of Sociology

Click the following link to see a video of the 2012 event:

"Sociological Theory" Contra "Theories on Sociology"


2013 - The Fate of Social Class in Contemporary American Sociology

Throughout the history of American sociology, and the history of sociology at the University of Michigan in particular, social class has remained an important concept for analysis and argument.  Yet, its importance in sociology has not allowed the term to serve as the basis for a formally crystallized subfield of the sociology of class.  Indeed, what many regard as the other two central concepts in the discipline, race and gender, have become bases for the creation of formidable and distinct subfields.  Social class, in contrast, remains a topic of extreme concern and focus for sociological inquiry without having been situated so precisely in the discipline. Hence, the questions motivating this year's conversation are:

  • How and why is the concept of social class salient in your research agenda?
  • From your scholarly vantage point, is there an intellectual crisis in thinking about and/or researching class in American sociology?
  • Does class hold a space of scholarly significance in sociology that is distinct from race and gender?  If so, what is it? If not, the how does a focus on social class enrich, sustain, or advance studies of gender or race in sociology?
  • How could class be thought about in new or novel ways that enriches the contemporary sociological enterprise, or might there be a need to return to more traditional or classic ways of thinking about the term?

The University of Michigan's 2013 Conversations in Michigan Sociology symposium deals with these very issues.  The panelists are:

  • Rachel Best, Robert Woods Johnson postdoctoral fellow and (eff 9/1/14) Assistant Professor of Sociology
  • Howard Kimeldorf, Professor of Sociology
  • Greta Krippner, Associate Professor of Sociology
  • George Steinmetz, Professor of Sociology and Germanic Languages and Literatures

Click the following link to see a video of the 2013 event.


2014 - Sociology into the Social World: Encountering the Public with Sociological Scholarship

In the past decades there has been considerable attention given to the ways in which various public constituencies react and respond to the scholarship produced by sociologists. While serving as President of the American Sociological Association, Michael Buroway advanced conversation in the discipline about public sociology. In doing so he claimed that public sociology “endeavors to bring sociology into dialogue with audiences beyond the academy, an open dialogue in which both sides deepen their understanding of public issues.” It is, in most simple terms, a conversation between sociology and publics.

Research in the University of Michigan’s Department of Sociology often involves engaging publics of various forms, ranging from interested lay parties to actual research participants and to those who assume that their life situations and circumstances may be effected by such work. The recent scholarship of the panelists for this year’s Conversations has generated strong interest in or reaction from public constituencies beyond sociology. They include public policy/government agencies and officials, general lay readerships, and civic groups and political communities that address the politics of controversy in some fashion or another. Accordingly, the question motivating this year’s Conversation us what are the ways in which Michigan sociologists confront, engage, and make sense of the public reaction to sociological scholarship?

More specifically, a selection of Sociology Department faculty will explore the following questions:

  • What unique experiences have you encountered by having your work read and/or discussed by audiences that are not formally sociological?
  • What strategies or techniques have you employed in order to best navigate those audiences?
  • From your vantage point, what challenges or advantages exist for sociology when scholarship is seriously considered by non-sociological audiences?

The format is for each panelist to share 15 minutes of remarks, and these will be followed by an open conversation with the audience.

The panelists are as follows:

  • Associate Professor Elizabeth Armstrong
  • Associate Professor Karyn Lacy
  • Professor Jeff Morenoff
  • Associate Professor Genevieve Zubrzycki

Click the following link to see a video of the event

Sociology into the Social World: Encountering the Public with Sociological Scholarship

2015 - The Strong Case for Sociology in Public Policy Studies

Public policy studies is concerned with the well-being of the public -- that is, improving human conditions and enriching the general social welfare. This field provides a unique analytical lens on social problems in areas such as education, health, housing, social security, and other forms of income support. It attends to topics such as the management of public programs, the production of public policies, the organization of government entities for the delivery of public services, and the examination of the implementation and management of systems of service delivery. Sociology is, by necessity, in conversation with the concerns and questions central to public policy studies. However, public policy studies also appears to some as a highly technical field that is divorced from inquiry into theoretical issues or certain empirical questions that are of central concern in sociology.

In contrast to the case of sociology, political science and economics often appear to be more firmly situated in the domain of public policy studies. This is evident by the mere number of economists and political scientists on the faculties of public policy schools and programs in comparison to sociologists. It is also often evident by public perception that economists and political scientists are more appropriately suited to engage matters concerning policy debate, formation, and implementation.

Recent discussions about public sociology and the utility of various kinds of applied sociology have been linked to arguments about the role that sociology can play in pushing public policy beyond the technocratic model that surfaced for the field in the post-World War II era. Some have argued that the potentially important contribution of the sociological perspective on major policy debates must challenge the idea that public policy studies remain so thoroughly technical in its execution. Others have argued that the arguments made by sociologists about social issues and concerns, the relationship of the state to the distribution of societal resources, and the constitution of the notion of a social problem, itself, should better inform the contemporary intellectual agenda of public policy studies. These and other concerns call for this year’s consideration of the state of sociology in public policy studies.

The panelists are as follows:

  • Assistant Professor Sandy Levitsky
  • Assistant Professor Alex Murphy
  • Professor Jason Owen-Smith
  • Professor Pam Smock

Click the following link to see a video of the event

The Strong Case for Sociology in Public Policy

2016 - Social Inequality in America: What Role for Sociology?

Social inequality has been a cornerstone topic of concern in sociology. At its most simplistic level, disciplinary attention to social inequality has catered to two opposing perspectives. Traditional functionalist have argued that social inequality is inevitable, if not the desirable, given the paucity of societal resources and rewards. Adherents to this perspective argue that social inequality and social stratification lead to meritocracy rooted in differentials according to ability.

Alternatively, conflict theorists view inequality as resulting social domination of various kinds. In recent years public attention has focused on what many believe to be rampant social inequality in America. Not only have many Americans have expressed deep concern that access to the American Dream has escaped them as well as their children, but many believe that the status they have achieved will not transfer to their children. While debates about the significance of social domination and meritocracy ensue, the state of public concern about social inequality extends beyond the mere measurement of differences in social positions and statuses and assessments of who occupies them. Taking this into account, the faculty panel for the 2016 Conversations in Michigan Sociology will discuss the following questions:

  • What can sociology offer for enriching understanding in the present moment of social inequality in America?
  • Do sociological studies of inequality transfer into a public agenda for social transformation? If so, how might they? If not should they?
  • Are there any leverage points for sociologists to enter into the public discussion of inequality that is distinct from those inherent in political science, economics, or other social scientific fields? If so, what are they and how might these points be better articulated to the broader public?

The panelists:

Professor Elizabeth Armstrong
Professor Jennifer Barber
Assistant Professor Deirdre Bloome
Associate Professor Greta Krippner
Professor Mark Mizruchi
Professor Alford Young, Jr. (Moderator)

Click the following link to see a video of the event:

Social Inequality in America: What Role for Sociology?

2017 - Reconciling Unsettled Identities: Gender in Contemporary Sociology

Although its importance to the discipline is indisputable, identity has never constituted an autonomous sub-field in sociology. Instead, its legacy rests in its emergence in disparate disciplinary sub-fields such as race and ethnic relations, gender and sexuality, political sociology and social movements, and social psychology. The common thread that links these and other subfields in the pursuit of identity is a focus on how individuals and collectives create boundaries or parameters for identities to emerge and endure, or how identities are imagined or negotiated at the micro-level throughout the course of everyday life. The issue of whether there have been any other common logics for how identity has been assessed across these varied sociological sub-fields remains an open question.

That being the case, contemporary research on identity – in sociology as well as other social science disciplines – has been affected by the increasing instability and malleability of various kinds of identities that in prior years may have been considered to be much more stable or durable. The recognition of transgender identities, bi and multi-raciality, and other newly emerging categories pose unique challenges and call for different questions to be considered about how identity should be pursued as part of the sociological enterprise. Essentially, new thinking must commence about what it means to be a male, a female, or a person of color in the modern world, and how sociologists may rethink long-standing concepts such as gender, race, and sexuality.

As a step toward unraveling some the contemporary challenge for sociological studies of identity the objective for the 2017 Conversations is to explore gender as an unsettled identity. More specifically, the call is to explore what is and should be going on in sociology, and especially where it is failing, in the effort to advance understandings of sexual and gender identities given the vastly changing landscape around them. This year’s panelists will address the general question of what is at stake for sociology in regard to these concerns and why do you believe this is the case?

The panelists:

Professor Karin Martin
Assistant Professor Erin Cech
Professor Fatma Muge Gocek
Professor Alford Young, Jr. (Moderator)

Click the following link to see a video of the event:

Reconciling Unsettled Identities: Gender in Contemporary Sociology