School of Social Science
By Deva Woodly
I was in my final year of graduate school, writing a dissertation on the place of persuasion in the success of contemporary American social movements, when the nearly two-year-long campaign for the American president who would succeed George W. Bush began. As a student of politics, it was impossible not to be transfixed by the epic discursive battle being waged, first in the hard- fought democratic primary between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and finally during the general election campaign in which, Obama, having won against his formidable Democratic rival, entered a political contest with veteran politician John McCain. For the American public, this contest was the most closely followed election in decades. A Gallup poll taken in June 2008, early summer, when political attention is usually at its nadir, found that nearly two-thirds of Americans described the 2008 campaign as “exciting.” By September, Gallup found that a record 87 percent, almost nine in ten Americans, reported that they were following national politics closely. The astonished poll takers wrote, in the summary of their results, “This significantly exceeds anything Gallup has measured since it began asking this question in 1995.”*
By Elizabeth Bernstein
In recent years, the trafficking of women and children into the sex sector has become the focus of a steady spate of media coverage, the subject of abundant policy interventions, and the target of local, national, and transnational activist campaigns uniting highly diverse constituencies. From the political left to the far right, from secular feminists to evangelical Christians, sex trafficking is frequently described as “modern day slavery” and is considered to be a moral question that is “beyond politics,” something no one could possibly claim to be “for.” This unity is all the more striking given the fact that definitions of the term remain murky, with many states and activists applying it not only to forced but also to voluntary forms of sexual labor. Despite this ambiguity, sex trafficking has risen to a position of cultural and political prominence that it has not held since the “white slavery” panic similarly circled the globe at the turn of the last century.
This surge of interest presents sociologists and other scholars with some vexing social and historical questions. If prostitution is the “oldest profession,” why the resurgence of interest in it now? How has the issue of sex trafficking come to unite constituencies that otherwise have opposing politics and interests, especially in relation to matters of sex and gender (as ongoing political controversies over gay marriage and abortion powerfully reveal)?
By Mary L. Dudziak
Does war have a time? The idea of “wartime” is regularly invoked by scholars and policymakers, but the temporal element in warfare is rarely directly examined. I came to the Institute in 2007–08 intent on exploring the history of war’s impact on American law and politics, but assumptions about wartime were so prevalent in the literature that first I found myself puzzling over ideas about time. Ultimately, this resulted in a book, War ·Time: An Idea, Its History, Its Consequences (Oxford University Press, 2012).
The idea that time matters to warfare appears in Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan: “War consisteth not in battle only, or the act of fighting, but in a tract of time, wherein the will to contend by battle is sufficiently known; and therefore the notion of time is to be considered in the nature of war.” Time’s importance calls for critical inquiry, but time is often treated as if it were a natural phenomenon with an essential nature, shaping human action and thought. Yet our ideas about time are a product of social life, Émile Durkheim and others have argued. Time is of course not produced by clocks, which simply represent an understanding of time. Instead, ideas about time are generated by human beings working in specific historical and cultural contexts. Just as clock time is based on a set of ideas produced not by clocks but by the people who use them, wartime is also a set of ideas derived from social life, not from anything inevitable about war itself.
Yet war seems to structure time, as does the clock. Stephen Kern argues that World War I displaced a multiplicity of “private times,” and imposed “homogenous time,” through an “imposing coordination of all activity according to a single public time.” During World War I, soldiers synchronized their watches before heading into combat. In Eric J. Leed’s description of trench warfare, war instead disrupted time’s usual order. Battle became an extended present, as considerations of past and future were suspended by the violence of the moment. “The roaring chaos of the barrage effected a kind of hypnotic condition that shattered any rational pattern of cause and effect,” so that time had no sequence. And so one meaning of “wartime” is the idea that battle suspends time itself.
By Jessica Ellen Sewell
The mid-1950s saw the invention of a new, highly mythologized housing type, the bachelor pad, articulated most fully in the pages of Playboy and in films. The bachelor pad is an apartment for a single professional man, organized for entertaining and pleasure, and displaying tasteful consumption. The bachelor pad was culturally salient at this particular historical moment because it linked a culture increasingly focused on consumption and what sociologists and cultural commentators in the late 1950s argued was a “crisis in masculinity.” The bachelor pad provided a compelling fantasy of individual consumption and economic and sexual power to counter that crisis, but at the same time, helped to produce the masculinity crisis by problematizing straight male domesticity.
As described in Playboy, the pad “is, or should be, the outward reflection of his [the bachelor’s] inner self—a comfortable, livable, and yet exciting expression of the person he is and the life he leads.”1 It is precisely this inner self that was seen to be in crisis in the late 1950s: men’s sense of themselves as individuals had been stripped away, a state that was blamed partly on the conformity of corporate America and partly on women.
By Didier Fassin
Philosophers have always been interested in moral questions, but social scientists have generally been more reluctant to discuss morals and moralities. This is indeed a paradox since the questioning of the moral dimension of human life and social action was consubstantial to the founding of their disciplines.
A clue to this paradox resides in the tension between the descriptive and prescriptive vocations of social sciences: is the expected result of a study of moralities a better understanding of social life, or is the ultimate goal of a science of morals the betterment of society? At the beginning of the twentieth century, the German sociologist Max Weber, following the first line, pleaded for a value-free study of value-judgment, examining, for instance, the role played by the Protestant ethic in the emerging spirit of capitalism. His French contemporary Emile Durkheim, more sensitive to the second option, strongly believed that research on morality would not be worth the labor it necessitates were scientists to remain resigned spectators of moral reality, a position that did not prevent him from proposing a rigorous explanation of why we obey collective rules. This dialectic between exploring norms and promoting them, between analyzing what is considered to be good and asserting what is good, has thus been at the heart of the social sciences ever since their birth.
For anthropology, the problem was even more crucial, since the confrontation with other cultures, and therefore other moralities, led to an endless discussion between universalism and relativism. Given the variety of norms and values across the globe and their transformation over time, should one affirm that some are superior or accept that they are all merely incommensurable? Most anthropologists, from the American father of culturalism, Franz Boas, to the French founder of structuralism, Claude Lévi-Strauss, adopted the second approach, certainly reinforced by the discovery of the historical catastrophes engendered by ideologies based on human hierarchy, whether they served to justify extermination in the case of Nazism, exploitation for colonialism, or segregation with apartheid. This debate was recently reopened with issues such as female circumcision (renamed genital mutilation) and traditional matrimonial strategies (requalified as forced marriages), with many feminists arguing in favor of morally engaged research when it came to practices they viewed as unacceptable.