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Books of Note - Timothy J. Dowd, Emory University

Many books have appeared since the last installment of “Books of Notes” column in the 2007 Newsletter. Rather than surveying all that would be of interest to cultural sociologists, I highlight but a few of those published in 2008 and 2009. Unfortunately, time and space constrain how many I can mention.

Three on Distinction

Tony Bennett, Mike Savage, Elizabeth Bortolaia Silva, Alan Warde, Modesto Gayo-Cal and David Wright. 2009. Culture, Class, Distinction. Routledge.


The authors consider carefully the arguments of Bourdieu regarding cultural capital, fields of consumption, and inequality – while also refining and re-assessing those arguments. Drawing on an impressive range of data in the UK (interviews, focus groups, survey), they examine how class, ethnicity and gender matter for such things as musical preference, appreciation of the visual arts, reading, eating and exercise. In short, they provide a compelling way to think about how tastes can translate into social distinction.


Marion Fourcade. 2009. Economists and Societies: Discipline and Profession in the United

States, Britain, and France, 1890s to 1990s. Princeton University Press.


What passes for expertise and knowledge of distinction? It depends, Fourcade answers. In this innovative book she compares how different national contexts – which include political and cultural factors – resulted in somewhat different versions of economics in these three nations. Fourcade marshals both her argument and considerable evidence in an impressive fashion.


Michèle Lamont. 2009. How Professors Think: Inside the Curious World of Academic Judgment. Harvard University Press.


Lamont continues her fruitful examination of worth and worthiness – this time by turning her attention to the realm of academia. In particular, she examines how scholars in various disciplines define such distinctive qualities as “excellence” and “originality.” Delving into the peer review process for fellowships and grants, she gains unusual access via observation of panels and via interviews with panelists. In showing how this evaluative process plays out for various disciplines, Lamont also offers the rare book that compellingly engages theoretical concerns while also offering pragmatic lessons for academics and their work.


Two on Creativity


Robert R. Faulkner and Howard S. Becker. 2009. “Do You Know…?” The Jazz Repertoire in Action. University of Chicago Press.


Drawing on their personal experience and on interviews with musicians, Faulkner and Becker offer a delightful examination of musical performance while, at the same time, revealing insights into the nature of collective action. They probe the skills and knowledge necessary for musicians to perform an impossibly vast range of songs – including when musicians do so on the spur of the moment with other musicians they’ve just met.


Katherine Giuffre. 2009. Collective Creativity: Art and Society in the South Pacific. Ashgate.


Art worlds – with their vague boundaries – can sometimes be sprawling entities that challenge ambitious researchers. Giuffre sidesteps this problem by dealing with an art world on the small island of Raratonga. Based on two years of participant observation and interviews with a full range of those involved in this art world (e.g., artists, gallery owners) – as well as a network analysis of artist connections – she is able to demonstrate how creativity unfolds in a small geographic setting that is shaped by such global processes as migration and tourism.


Four on Sports


Michael Ian Borer. 2009. Faithful to Fenway: Believing in Boston, Baseball, and America’s Most Beloved Ballpark. New York University Press.


While readers may not agree with the designation of Fenway as the nation’s “most beloved ballpark,” they may well enjoy his interrogation of what goes on in this sporting venue. Taking both historical and contemporary views, he shows, among other things, how this place acquires both sacredness and authenticity for its city.


Scott N. Brooks. 2009. Black Men Can’t Shoot. University of Chicago Press.


The title of this book – which plays on the film, White Men Can’t Jump – cleverly hints at the focus of this ethnographic study set in Philadelphia. Brooks is concerned not with so-called natural abilities but with the sweat, toil, practice, etc. that are required for young African American men to become both excellent and known basketball players, as well as with the implications that being “known” holds for their social standing.


Reuben A. Bruford May. 2008. Living through the Hoop: High School Basketball, Race, and the American Dream. New York University Press.


May offers an engaging ethnography of basketball team in Georgia. It nicely shows the varied roles that basketball plays in the everyday lives of these young men – such as providing a focus that helps them negotiate disadvantaged neighborhoods and stoking aspirations for success as a professional athlete (no matter how unlikely the latter is).


Michael A. Messner. 2009. It’s All for the Kids: Gender, Families, and Youth Sports. University of California Press.


Intrigued by quantitative data showing a dearth and marginalization of women coaches in, for instance, the American Youth Soccer Organization and Little League Baseball and Softball, Messner qualitatively examines how sex segregation plays out in youth-sporting leagues of South Pasadena. He shows, among other things, how contradictory notions in this community can shape segregation – including notions of sports as fun vs. competition and notions of boys and girls as deserving equal chances vs. being basically different.


Three on Place


David Grazian. 2008. On the Make: The Hustle of Urban Nightlife. University of Chicago Press.


In an earlier work, Grazian used the metaphor of “con game” to describe Chicago blues clubs – with club owners, civic boosters and others working together to fabricate an “authentic” experience that willing tourists gladly consumed. This metaphor – as well as the emphasis on collective fabrication – finds its way into this book, where he turns his attention to restaurants, clubs and other hotspots in Philadelphia. Whereas race was a prominent concern in his previous work (e.g., opportunities of black vs. white musicians), gender comes to the fore (e.g., harassment of women in these locales) in this illuminating ethnography.


Wendy Griswold. 2008. Regionalism and the Reading Class. University of Chicago Press.


Some fear that globalization and its attendant features (e.g., diffusion of new media technologies) have led to a decline in reading and an eclipsing of regional literatures. Griswold squarely takes on these fears and, based on her analysis of evidence in such places as Italy, Norway and the US, finds both overstated. On the one hand, while readership for leisure may be declining overall, a “reading class” that is educated, affluent and geographically mobile continues to exist and thrive. On the other hand, members of this mobile reading class can (and often do) become enamored with the regional literatures found in their new places of residence.


Silva Rief. 2009. Club Cultures: Boundaries, Identities and Otherness. Routledge.


Rief offers a wide-ranging, and theoretically ambitious, examination of clubs and clubbing in London and elsewhere. She situates things broadly by addressing the evolving regulatory and market contexts of clubs and nightlife, as well as by considering media and academic discourse surrounding dance and club cultures. Having set the stage, so to speak, she qualitatively investigates what goes on within club cultures, as well.


Three on Subcultures and Scenes


Tammy L. Anderson. 2009. Rave Culture: The Alteration and Decline of a Philadelphia Music Scene. Temple University Press.


While casting much-needed light on the trajectory of this music scene in Philadelphia, Anderson also grapples with how connections between personal and collective identity occur in scenes, how participants in scenes adapt and respond to forces of change, how developments in the Philadelphia scene compare to its counterparts in London and Ibizia, and what the future holds for electronic dance music. The longitudinal and comparative aspects of her book are especially appealing.


Paul Lopes. 2009. Demanding Respect: The Evolution of the American Comic Book. Temple University Press.


In this social history of comic books, Lopes continues themes from his earlier work on jazz (The Rise of the Jazz Art World). For instance, he addresses a subculture that embraces content (comic books) that is stigmatized and derided by others and, and he attends to the transformation by which this content is both mainstreamed and eventually viewed by some as “art.” His analysis of discourse across the decades provides a nice complement to ethnographies of subcultures, while also offering broader lessons about stigma and legitimation.


Amy C. Wilkins. 2008. Wannabes, Goths, and Christians: The Boundaries of Sex, Style, and Status. University of Chicago Press.


Wilkins examines how young people use aspects of a given subculture to create identities and to navigate challenges that face them. Her examination is enlivened by a comparison of three disparate groups: “wannabes” – young white women who adopt lifestyle elements associated with local Puerto Rican hip-hoppers; “Goths” – those who favor such things as a dour appearance and disposition; and evangelical Christians on a secular college campus. The comparison works very well and, in the process, illuminates such things as the enactment of gender and the construction of boundaries between insiders and outsiders.


Three on Organizations


Katherine K. Chen. 2009. Enabling Creative Chaos: The Organization Behind the Burning Man Event. University of Chicago Press.


When thousands of people gather in the middle of the Nevada desert for a weeklong festival of the arts, organizational concerns will be both pressing and unusual. Chen offers a fascinating ethnography of the organization that enables this “Burning Man” to occur – an organization that has to deal with issues of community and commerce, and one that has to mobilize an army of volunteers while also confronting challenges of press coverage and regulation.

Frank Dobbin. 2009. Inventing Equal Opportunity. Princeton University Press.


Dobbin examines the emergence and diffusion of equal opportunity practices that are now widespread among U.S. firms. These practices were not simply imposed upon firms, but instead, were driven along by the actions of personnel professional and experts, among others. Relying on extensive longitudinal evidence, he offers a convincing institutional account that heeds both agents and power.


Gaye Tuchman. 2009. Wannabe U: Inside the Corporate University. University of Chicago Press.


Tuchman brings the same eye and approach that worked so well in Making the News to the campus. Interviewing key professors in four departments that were apparently in turmoil – as well as drawing upon observation of university committees and the consideration of official pronouncements and journalistic coverage of Wan U – she adroitly lays out an ongoing change that is both eye-opening and familiar: the rising prominence of a market logic in the operation and evaluation of higher education.


Two on the Political


Michael Schudson. 2008. Why Democracies Need an Unlovable Press. Polity Press.


Schudson offers a series of essays that provide a historically-informed vantage by which to view current concerns regarding the vitality of democracy and journalism. As he notes in his introductory chapter, things are more complex than often thought. Fortunately, Schudson is adept at leading the reader through that complexity.

Amin Ghaziani. 2008. The Dividends of Dissent: How Conflict and Culture Work in Lesbian and Gay Marches. University of Chicago Press.


This book has one of my favorite opening lines: “People fight.” From there, Ghaziani tells us how fighting – particularly in-fighting within social movements – can yield some positive returns. His cases here are four lesbian and gay marches on Washington DC (1979, 1987, 1993, and 2000) and the political organizing behind them. Not only substantively rich, this book also reveals how culture concretely works – such as how in-fighting figures in the construction of identity, of a “we-ness.”


Six Others to Note


Eva Illouz. 2008. Saving the Modern Soul: Therapy, Emotions, and the Culture of Self-Help. University of California Press.


Paul Lichterman and C. Brady Potts, editors. 2009. The Civic Life of American Religion. Stanford University Press.


Chandra Mukerji. 2009. Impossible Engineering: Technology and Territoriality on the Canal du Midi. Princeton University Press.


Allison J. Pugh. 2009. Longing and Belonging: Parents, Children, and Consumer Culture. University of California Press.


Christian Smith. 2009. Moral, Believing Animals: Human Personhood and Culture. Oxford University Press.


Robert Wuthnow. 2009. Boundless Faith: The Global Outreach of American Churches. University of California Press.