November 4, 2006

Race, ethnicity, and public audiences (conference liveblogging and random ruminations)

This afternoon, I'm at another paper session at the Social Science History Association (SSHA) meeting in Minneapolis.  This paper session is about the construction of race relations and various constructors' "publics." (Audiences and Publics is the theme for this year, and a core of panels has this theme as the organizing concept.)

(Session details in the full entry.)

Leah Gordon, a grad student at the University of Pennsylvania, has a paper on the individualistic construction of race relations research at the University of Chicago under the Park group of grad students and researchers studying urban relations (see the archival records of the Committee on Education, Training, and Research in Race Relations). Today, she was focusing on a measure of racial tensions (literally called a tension barometer), based on attitudinal surveys of whites (and whites only) and seeing structural factors as immutable and not deserving of focus. To Gordon, the Park School's individualistic focus and the inertia of once-started projects played a significant role in the paucity of structural models of race relations.

Hernan Sorgentini, a grad student at SUNY Stony Brook, is presenting his research on the Brazilian construction of racial democracy (as a concept). Sorgentini describes a complex set of symbolism involving race, gender, and power.  Images and metaphors of racialized sex (or sexualized race relations) are fairly prominent in the story he tells about Gilberto Freyre. I'm not familiar with Brazilian history (let alone Brazilian national ideologies), but this sounds fascinating (and weird, if no stranger than the parallel aspects of history of the U.S.).

Jennifer Hochschild, Traci Burch, and Vesla Weaver (the latter two are Hochschild's grad students) have a paper on "explaining the skin color paradox." They're interested in the social-class ties to skin tone within broad racial groupings (if you want a pop culture version, see Spike Lee's School Daze, though Hochschild doesn't say this is limited to African Americans; Hochschild et al. say that political scientists generally ignore this, apart from Cathy J. Cohen's The Boundaries of Blackness and her notion of "secondary marginalization") and the simultaneous political need for unity within race and ethnicity groupings. Very briefly, they think that there are environmental conditions that sometimes suppress the public recognition of within-race class-color relationships (what they call colorism). Hochschild et al. propose that eras of dramatic population change create conditions for all sorts of flux, including allowing colorism to become more visible and recognized. With a conference presentation, she can only give a smidgen of the evidence, but she's whetted things with the promise that they have evidence about political involvement. As usual, Hochschild and coauthors have gripped a subject with a clearly focused question or dilemma. This is the first time I've heard her present at a conference, and she is as interesting in a live presentation as her writing.

While listening to this panel, I've been thinking about the nature of SSHA and interdisciplinary conversations. In part, I've been thinking of such conversations because of my attendance at the conference (which is explicitly interdisciplinary) but because of the H-Education mailing list discussion on historians of education and "interdisciplines" and a question a USF grad student had some time ago about how I became interested in social stratification and education.

So a bit of a tangent here before I get back to the panel: last night, at a panel about the past and future of quantitative social history, I was talking with a geographer about how my advisor pushed me to take classes in Penn's Graduate School of Education and the sociology department.  That led me to a course in anthropology of education and another in social psychology, as well as the introductory demography course and a demography masters, eventually. Michael Katz (my advisor) was very firm in explaining that history-department jobs were rare and that I needed additional skills to be more flexible in looking for jobs. But it wasn't just his push. Lynn Hunt, who taught the first-year proseminar my entering year, had most of the readings in different social models (Marx, Toqueville, Weber, Foucault, etc.), and I had taken a very solid sociology of education course. So I suppose I had been primed to think about social history as more than idiosyncratic events and patterns. Very roughly speaking, I had no problem with believing that social history is more than description, and that we need some technical tools to investigate key questions.

So in grad school I was looking for different ideas to hang the notion of inequality on. Towards the end of coursework, I had conversations with my committee members (Katz, Michelle Fine, and Bob Engs) and some others about potential dissertation topics. All were about inequality and education. In the end, I chose the construction of dropping out combined with some statistics on graduation and local cases of dropout prevention/amelioration practices, but my particular research projects are less important for me in this sense than the hunger for both historical specificity and social modeling.

And we get to the SSHA, which is deliberately interdisciplinary and international (though we don't have nearly enough humanities scholars and scholars from Asia and Africa). At its best, we get great ideas and great attention to historical specificity. I think we have that in this panel.  In some cases, as with a book session this morning on Bob Brueggman's Sprawl: A Compact History, you get some participants not quite looking at the two sides clearly. But inconsistency is the nature of conferences, and you head to a conference hoping for high points. Since Judith Martin (aka Miss Manners) has written that her spectator sport of choice is opera, I suppose mine is an interdisciplinary conference.

Back to the session and the comments/discussion. Robert Wolff is tying the papers together by saying that all papers in some sense address or uncover issues of disciplinary creation and reshaping. Cohen explicitly raises it. Sorgentini uses one of the classics in Brazilian race relations. And Wolff asks Hochschild if she could explain how political science constructs race and race relations.

The responses by the presenters is fascinating, and I'm not going to try to follow it in any organized sense.  To some extent, the questions directed at Hochschild are challenging the specifics of the story she and her coauthors tell, either about invariance on colorism or the specifics of changes in the late 1920s and early 1930s (when Hochschild and others claim the visibility of colorism dissipates). Again comes the tension between powerful explanations and specifics.

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Posted in History on November 4, 2006 2:44 PM |