Posted by: Andrew | August 12, 2007

ASA Conference, Day 1


Thought I’d take running notes on how the American Sociological Association conference is proceeding – for me, that is. I could wait and do a single wrap-up once the whole thing packs up and leaves town, but I probably just won’t remember anything. So, it’s just as well to jot things down as they take place.

Even though the New York Hilton, where most of the conference proceedings are taking place, is only seven subway stops away from me on the Q train from Park Slope, I managed to be late on the first day – even taking into account the fact that I had decided to skip the 8:30am sessions. I tossed and turned the whole night before, getting little sleep which caused me to spend most of the day in a hazy, addled state. Of course, the Q decided to stop at Times Square rather than run full through to 57th Street, which wasn’t the worst thing to happen and not entirely unexpected, but I hated having to run to get to the first session, for which I was about 10 minutes late.

There are almost 600 scheduled sections over 4 days of presentations, not including special workshops, social events and receptions, plenaries, business group meetings, and so on. At this scale, it’s hardly an intimate experience, so I decided to do what I did at last week’s conference in Tokyo – pick out a a couple of people I wanted to see and hear, a couple of sessions that sounded really interesting, a session or two outside of my field, and relax and enjoy the rest. What I miss is the lack of a strong cohort from our school; there are only a few of us here (there are only a few of us in our program, faculty included) so this isn’t a collective experience for us but rather an individual one. I bullied my classmate Rebecca into coming in for a couple of days to attend a few sessions, even though she’s not a sociologist and has a million things to do.

So, I went to three sessions: one on the social/cultural construction of HIV/AIDS; charter schools and school choice movements in education; and finally economic globalization and its impact on income inequality. Discussing them in reverse order: the last of these was dominated by economic socioloigsts, obviously, and after attempting to look at a welter of charts and graphs from a distance discussing GINI coefficients and other data relating to income inequality, I sort of gave up – by then the lack of sleep, and my lack of familiarity with statistical and econometric models, took its toll and I started to nod off. The presentations were remarkable for their technical sophistication and for the fact that no one defined for us how they were defining and measuring globalization. So by the end when one person argued that globalization accounted for a significant percentage of variation in explaining inequality while another argued that it accounted for very little, there was some suspicion that they were measuring quite different things. I didn’t stick around for the Q&A, which likely didn’t last very long since there were five speakers on a panel scheduled for 1 hour and 40 minutes.

I went to the presentation on school choice mainly to listen to two speakers: Jennifer, a student from CU’s sociology department who also does a lot of work at TC, and my old org theory professor, who writes on charter schools. Jennifer spoke about the fact that schools here in NYC that ostensibly admit students ‘unscreened’ in fact do find ways of screening the admissions process. Principals, she found, widely share in the belief that it’s simply organizational suicide not to monitor admissions very carefully, and they resort to a variety of means to game the system and choose the best students they can while deflecting the students they don’t want. There are a variety of tactics that principals draw upon to get an optimal student body, and Jennifer argues that it has less to do with a lack of morality and ethics on the part of the principals than the structure of a system which gives principals little incentive to take on ‘troubled’ students, especially given that accountability regimes are placing increasing importance on getting high test scores, graduating kids, and so on. I think her larger point is absolutely right: school choice is not only about families choosing schools but also schools choosing students, and from that perspective one has to proceed cautiously before valorizing the efficiency of school choice. I’m not clear, though, whether one has to attribute principals’ behaviors (convincingly documented by Jennifer) to a kind of mutual or networked learning process that evolved under certain structural conditions, as she suggests; or as a reflection of standard organizational decision-making where learning how to ‘game’ admission, employment, or any kind of membership rules in the face of external environmental constraints is to be expected. The discussant sort of pointed to this, I think; my own take is that institutional theory might be of some use in this context.

I don’t want to say much about my professor’s paper – I’ve been promising to deliver some critical reactions to his paper for a long while now. In brief, the paper uses some classical work in institutional theory – particularly the Meyer & Rowan pieces from the 1970s – to revive the institutional/technical environments distinction, arguing that the supposed potential represented by charter schools comes under broader institutional-environmental pressures, leading charter schools to gradually reincorporate familiar forms and practices that make them not very different from regular public schools. This is taken to confirm the strength and robustness of institutional environments in schooling, with qualitative data being used to back this up. For my part, I’m not sure how useful the institutional/technical environment distinction is, even in the context of schooling, which provided the empirical material for the original Meyer & Rowan articles. It simply breaks down once we approach the microlevel, doesn’t it, so that it becomes hard to distinguish between what counts as an institutional versus a technical element of organizational structure. I haven’t clearly thought through my views about this approach, which I have to present carefully given that it’s for a paper developed by a faculty member. Well, I’ve said enough already.

Finally, the cultural and social construction of HIV/AIDS session. I originally went to hear about the papers on African AIDS: there was one talk on Uganda, and another on South Africa. The Uganda talk I missed in part because I was late, but the point the speaker seemed to be raising was the fact that conceptions of masculinity which emphasize both marriage and once ‘continuing ability’ to engage in occasional and/or concurrent outside relationships, seems to be ‘in flux’ in part because of the AIDS crisis. It’s not that masculinity has changed, but that the crisis has exerted pressures on previously stable practices of masculinity such that a variety of pragmatic responses can be observed. Methodologically, the interesting point that emerged in the discussion is that there are discrepancies in what people say and what they actually do and the complex of frontstage/backstage coordinations have to be taken into account to get a holistic ethnographic picture. Hardly a startlingly original observation, but an important one nevertheless.

On South Africa, I came away feeling slightly disturbed. Like the presenter, I used to read about South Africa’s turbulent HIV/AIDS policy environment and make distinctions in my own mind between Western ‘biomedical science’ and traditional ‘healing’ practices (both of which are to be distinguished from the burgeoning snake oil industry that has emerged to take advantage of the vast number of ill and sick in the country). But listening to the presentation, I realized that I was making the common mistake of constructing a sharp ideological opposition between ‘science’ and ‘healing’ only to slap it down by confronting it with complex and messy realities. The speaker pointed out – without really ever stating her stance on AIDS denialism and the sharp oppositions that South Africans themselves sometimes make – that the ideology obscures diverse interconnections at the practical level. Sometimes pointing this out is necessary, but I think we’re moving beyond the stage – as the discussant kindly and gently suggested – where these complex realities are ‘invisible’; rather, we’ve started to acknowledge them, which undercuts the need for this kind of ideology critique and rather forces us to develop more sophisticated models of behavior. What came into my mind after listening to the diversity of medical practices (people draw upon both types of medicine/medical knowledge) is a kind of emerging ‘medical self-fashioning‘ to use a term from Clifford James that’s utterly hybrid in nature. This idea of a medical self-fashioning is intriguing, and I think I’ll have to pursue it further.

The idea that we use medical knowledge to ‘fashion’ or ‘shape’ ourselves in ways that both protect our identity while exposing us to HIV/AIDS risk also came up in Chang-suk Han’s fascinating talk about HIV/AIDS incidence among gay Asian men. He pointed out two facts, which I found surprising and counterintuitive. Among minorities, rates of HIV infection are highest among gay Asian men (GAMs); and it’s the US-born rather than foreign-born GAMs who are especially prone to engaging in unsafe sex. It runs against the stereotype of Asian men as prone to sexually risky or uninformed behavior. And yet this is a stereotype: it’s not the lack of information per se that is contributing to unsafe sex practices but something else. GAMs, in other words, know when they are engaging in unsafe sex, but do it anyway. Why?

The presenter surmised that the politics of race and sexual attraction, buttressed by media images even within the gay community, support a feminization of gay Asian males who then see their sexual attractiveness as dependent upon acting the role of wife and concubine to a white male husband. The Madame Butterly effect, in other words. GAMs, he says, are overwhelmingly interested in dating caucasians rather than other Asians, and they tend to see one another as competitors rather than as potential partners.

There are complicated causalities at work here that he was only able to hint at in a 15-minute presentation. First, there are demographic factors at work; the # of GAMs is so small that the search for partners very often must extend beyond the gay Asian community itself, making the presentation of self to cultural others a significant problem and task. Racial but not ethnic categories are dominant in this context: a white gay man typically want an ‘Asian’ man without really taking into account whether he’s Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, etc. (although I would imagine that there are differentiations drawn here between southeast, east, south Asians, etc.). Second, Asian men are not interested in dating other Asian men in part because they relate to other Asians as members of a family, raising a kind of peculiar incest taboo; it’s as if dating another Asian is dating a brother or a sister. That happens particularly for gays, although the dynamics underyling this were not explored.

This is all very interesting, but it’s not clear to me how these kinds of dynamics still translate into higher exposure to HIV/AIDS, unless the suggestion is that the ‘feminization’ of the GAM role is positively correlated with certain types of especially risky sexual practices (you’ll use a condom with another guy, but not with a woman?). This can’t be the only reason, although I agree with Han that the typical ‘cultural’ and ‘self-esteem’ arguments – Asians don’t like condoms or don’t have a lot of self-esteem – to be deeply unsatisfactory.

My own uninformed thought on this, after thinking about the outcome and discussions following this summer’s HIV/AIDS class, is that there are a combination of factors at work (of course, one is never wrong by saying that things are complicated and that there are a combination of factors at work in a given situation). What struck me is that the second generation of youth coming up through the AIDS crisis aren’t uninformed of risks; while they do engage in a fair degree of mythmaking they have a basic knowledge of STD transmission and AIDS risk. Yet sexual practices and behavior aren’t supervening upon that knowledge, and it came to me that the collective learning experiences that the 1st generation exposed to the AIDS crisis (i.e., people of my age or older) were instrumental in affecting behavior. Fear and learning to overcome fear, in other words, is not the same thing as being ignorant and overcoming ignorance. It would be interesting to see correlations between rates of GAM infection, age, and levels of education and knowledgeability regarding HIV transmission.

Also, what was emphasized in the discussion was the performative or dramaturgical aspect of sexual interaction: my reference to Madame Butterfly was not fortuitous or accidental. The extensive degree of feminization and submissiveness in dyadic interactions and relationships between GAMs and other non-Asian GMs reflects the possibility that there is a very narrow range of variation in the kind of dramaturgical self-fashioning that GAMs engage in when interacting with others. This might change, I suggested, as the increasing diversity and variation in aesthetic exemplars coming out of the burgeoning and increasingly interlocked Asian culture industries (movies, music, art, TV, etc.) are made available to Asian-American kids. What lessons are they going to learn if they can, through the few clicks of the internet, start accessing movies – some of which depict same-sex relations – and shows where Asians are members of dominant, rather than vastly minority, cultures?

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