Let’s mix metaphors: some kinds of research are cheerleading, inside baseball, and political footballs all at once. Sports allusions aside, it’s an unusually fraught time to do research or activism in Trump’s America. Research that looks at marginalized groups and seemingly-trivial concepts, like the overlap of everyday culture and inequality that is central to my own research, is easily dismissed by many inside and outside the academy. Critique and direct criticism along the lines of why look at Twitter or teen music when the world is actually shutting down are easy to find. As fellow Philly sociologist Dustin Kidd has written though, under Trump, “Pop culture is the new president and celebrity studies is the new political science.”
This article looks closely at research, activism, and the current socio-political context in the United States. Although some strands of sociological research have long been devalued or seen as suspect, the current political climate in the United States highlights the public dismissal of research and claims to truth more generally. Right now, in public discourse and some scholarly settings, truth seems less important than bombast. This raises questions of rigor and relevance, as well as bias and personal agenda. Generally, anyone who seems to be associated with Leftist or progressive politics is publicly dismissed as promoting personal politics over objective truth. The need to defend the types of research and activism often dismissed as me-search or trivial, however, because they look at groups and subjects already marginalized, has long been both a concern and a calling of sociology. Inside baseball (that is to say, inside the academy), we live in a moment where position matters, much as it always has, but unlike the brief flourishing of American academe post World War II, universities are now run largely by expanded administration on contingent labor. This impacts what research agendas are followed, recognized, and promoted, and by whom.
One strand of my research examines representation and value in everyday culture. I look at racialized conflict on Twitter, reactions to white pop stars like Miley Cyrus or Taylor Swift, and other moments where hierarchies of value are clearly at work. The key to these moments, I argue, is that they are so easily dismissed. We learn again and again who and what are deemed worthy of attention by noticing who and what are not, and when we are told, as researchers, activists, and citizens, that we are “too sensitive” or “making big deal out of nothing.” There are also moments, like the extended vignette I share below, where several marginalized groups are pitted against one another, and those closest to the top of the racial hierarchy usually come out on top. That this struggle is generally invisible and unintentional is what gives it such power.
I study majority-white politically progressive community groups to learn about what people with social power and a desire for urban transformation are doing with and through art. For one particular comparative ethnographic project, my fieldwork took place over the course of 8 years with three different US nonprofits in the same metropolitan area. All three organizations highlight the importance of arts and culture spaces to urban transformation, beyond dollars and sense. I research the experience of community that hands-on arts participation enables.
In the following example drawn from fieldwork, we’re at the Rainbow Tornado’s Spectacular! parade, a day when various constituents of the anarchist street theater’s community come together to display art they have made.
Groups (called pods) include prison abolitionists; dog-walkers; an interfaith group; recovery houses; after-school programs; ethnic cultural organizations; and more, including my own group of Radical Cheerleaders. There are about a dozen of us assembled this morning, and to any passer-by we all appear to be young white women, in our teens and twenties, with a fair amount of visible body piercings and tattoos.
The parade begins, and The Radical Cheerleaders begin to cheer:
Spectacular! It’s really good:
Represent your neighborhood!
We begin to list different neighborhoods in a call and response chant.
A few pods up is a group of men from a recovery house. Early twenties through apparent late middle age, with an overarching street aesthetic: heavy tattoos, baseball hats, sagging jeans or Carhartts and T-shirts, largely Latinx and Spanish-speaking. Appearances do matter here, since much of what is discussed as diversity relies on visible clues or cues. As the chant moves through the parade, some of these men join in, making the link between the rhythm of our words and 2 Live Crew originator Luke’s “I Wanna Rock (Doo Doo Brown).” Some of them chant along, quoting the song: “Don’t stop/Get it, Get it/Doo doo brown!/Doo doo brown!”
The full lyrics of Luke’s song discuss various ways in which the speaker of the song enjoys sex or plans to have sex with a nameless woman. The refrain “Don’t stop/get it get it” is not itself obscene, but anyone who understands the rhythmic or lyrical reference knows this is booty bass, a sex song, a “strip club classic”. Outside of the reference, nothing explicitly raunchy or sexual is said publicly, although some of the men do make comments about the “sexy” outfits and stances of some of the group (short skirts, knee socks, boots). But the vision of women invoked by the song is an absent presence in the parade. It has impact. It has residue.
And it is a vision of women in contrast to what Radical Cheerleaders try to embody, poking fun at the patriarchy through inversion and playing with gendered stereotypes, as seen here.
While two very different discourses are in tension in my example, nothing “happens.” There is no particular incident, as there will be in a smaller event the following spring, where a demographically-similar group of men from the same recovery program are said to be sexually harassing a small group of teenage girls from a youth intervention project, and where no one intervenes from outside the two groups because no one else speaks Spanish.
The parade is an example of the dilemma of diversity. Like the neighborhoods that make up major metropolitan areas, each pod is unique and somewhat separate from others. All come together to make up a larger entity, but not necessarily without conflict. The conflict here is about depictions of women, and race, and class. It is unspoken.
So booty bass is a barometer. “I Wanna Rock” means different things to different people, with the Radical Cheerleaders using it ironically, in a feminist and pop-culture critique of misogyny while appropriating the infectious beats and public recognition of the song. Others who hear the Spectacular! chant mostly just hear the sound of the strip club.
Appropriation or reproduction? In public on this autumn day, two different groups are singing the same song together. Almost. Almost. And the spread of the chant through the crowd, naming different neighborhoods within the larger city, is a way for different groups to participate with one another and to make our unified presence known throughout the streets where we march.
And that’s the value of all this coded and euphemistic “diversity” talk for class-privileged white people, in a nutshell: warmth, community, relationships. A salve for white guilt. Some interpersonal, interactional aspect to the city that makes it a very different place than a suburb or exurb or rural setting. They are imagining a city of participation, a city of engagement, and a city that works across race, class, gender, and other markers of identity.
To a general audience, however, there is the immediate dismissal: so what? A bunch of young(ish) white women dressed as punk cheerleaders get mad because people pay attention to them, because people understand their references? Cue www.sadtrombone.com. While that’s certainly one interpretation of moments of everyday culture, my research and activism overlap because of the tension around social practices and social value. My teaching, does, too—students in my gender and sexuality classes and classes focused on social change and social movements often learn various cheers and chants which we then analyze using relevant social theory.
Long before the current political moment, I chose field sites and topics partly because of my inside involvement as an activist. That’s one of the things sociology does well. See standpoint theory, symbolic interactionism, and intersectionality, among other theories concerned with identity, representation, and power. But like other social sciences and the liberal arts, we are in a moment of public contestation over the value of sociology, of lived experience, and of the daily realities of massive social inequality. This contestation comes from inside the field as well as politicians, funders, and public perception.
So why do it? Why do research? Why be an activist? Why be clear about the links between the two? Because sociological research has power, in the classrooms, in the streets, and for public policy and opinion. When we focus on research that looks at individual experience but beyond individual explanation for what we see as “failure” or “success,” we are better able to see systemic production of value and bias, and to challenge unfair systems.
Carolyn Chernoff is an American sociologist of inequality and everyday culture. She earned her PhD from the University of Pennsylvania. In addition to public-facing outlets, such as the Huffington Post, Chernoff has published work on democratic process, community-based arts, and media representation in journals including Visual Arts Research, Michigan Sociological Review, and Perspectives on Urban Education. Chernoff has also published work on RuPaul’s Drag Race, and various theories of education. @CarolynChernoff
Image Credit: New York Public Library digital collections