When I think about the books that have shaped my sociological imagination, my choices are influenced almost as much by the circumstances in which I encountered the books as by the books themselves. It’s not that these books’ contents are irrelevant or unenlightening; quite the contrary. But just as sociology teaches that we shouldn’t forget how individual personalities are formed through interactions with the larger social world, I can’t overlook the importance of the people and situations that introduced me to these books.
Midway through college, I signed up for a class on the Sociology of Gender. That decision started me on the path that has defined my life in the nine years since. My excellent instructor, Beth Latshaw (then a sociology Ph.D. candidate at UNC; now an assistant professor at Widener University), showed me how sociology could expand upon little inklings and questions about the world that I had long harbored but never really explored. Michael Schwalbe’s The Sociologically Examined Life was one of the earliest readings in the class and gave me my first impression of sociology.
Fast forward five years – now I’m a grad student in sociology, but I’m coming off of a challenging year and wondering if I have what it takes to stick it out in graduate school. Fortunately, I enroll in a course on Politics and Culture with Prof. James Hunter that gives me a second wind. The Social Construction of Reality by Berger and Luckmann is a centerpiece of the class, and the act of reading it and engaging with it alongside my classmates and the professor reminded me of all that can be so rewarding about academic life.
Now it’s a couple of years after I got my second wind from Berger and Luckmann, and I’m looking around for a dissertation idea. I meet a surgeon and mention my dilemma, and he tells me about how rewarding he thinks it might be for a sociologist to study the culture of surgeons and how it has changed. He recommends that I check out a book that a sociologist wrote about the medical world in the 1970s – Charles Bosk’s Forgive and Remember. This book, about the management of medical mistakes, helps convince me that there really is a rich sociological world for me to explore in the medical field. The conversation with the surgeon lit the match of my dissertation idea, and this book convinces me to make sure nothing snuffs it out.
As I discussed in a post on this blog a couple of years ago, it seems to me that in their understandable fondness for the intellectual rigor of theory and the romance of popular protest, sociologists often overlook the importance of successfully navigating the political sphere for ensuring that social change proves to be lasting. John Farrell’s biography of Tip O’Neill, the longtime Congressman who capped off his career with a memorable run as Speaker of the House from 1977-87, reminds me that a command of the mysterious and maddening ways of politics is critical for those who wish for their academic contributions to reach beyond the ivory tower or to make sure their visions of social change edure. As much as some of us may disdain it or wish to ignore it, Omar Little’s quote about the drug trade from The Wire applies just as well to politics: “The game is out there, and it’s either play or get played.” Few played better than Tip O’Neill.
There’s no sense in denying that I basically embody a certain form of what Simmel called social types – in this case, the progressive Millennial from an upper middle class background. (Graduate school is our natural habitat.) But I try to remain a critical observer of this worldview even as I inhabit it. While it’s from a prior generation (and it’s an article as opposed to a book), James Fallows’ piece from the October 1975 issue of The Washington Monthly epitomizes the perspective I try to hold on to. Fallows describes the tips and tricks that the he and his Harvard classmates used avoid the draft during the Vietnam War. While many were confident that their opposition to the war placed them on the side of justice, Fallows describes his mixed feelings knowing that this ability and willingness to avail himself of the opportunities available to him by virtue of his class position meant that another, less advantaged man would be sent to Vietnam in his place.