Friday, August 26, 2011

Where Have You Gone, C. Wright Mills?

A discipline turns its lonely eyes to you.*

Sociologists in Sin City Bad Mouth Vegas:

There is something both jarring and perfectly apropos about bringing thousands of sociologists to Sin City. As the ASA press release delicately observed, “Las Vegas [is] vibrant and fascinating from a sociological perspective” – but it’s not difficult to conjecture why the conference had never been held here before.

The very aspects of Las Vegas that might make it fascinating to a sociologist -- the emphasis on consumerism and decadence; the unapologetic obsession with (and exploitation of) female flesh; and the city's most celebrated pastime gambling, whose appeal is particularly mystifying to some with a background in statistics -- are also the sorts of things that tend to be off-putting to academics, especially (or at least) in the presence of their colleagues.

Little wonder that ol' Lost Wages is one of the least-educated cities in the country. (As David Dickens, professor of sociology at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, likes to say: "Thank god for Fresno.") And little wonder, too, that even those who have dedicated their careers to studying human society weren't wholly enthused about being thrust into the heart of this particular society, however fascinating it might be.

“Oh god, I hate this city,” said Kathleen Lowney, professor of sociology at Valdosta State University. “For me it’s a constant barrage of noise that’s just overwhelming.”

And many aspects of it are “creepy,” she said – such as the throngs of aggressive young men along the Strip wearing t-shirts and distributing photographically informative fliers that advertise “girls in your room in 20 minutes.”

LOL. I'm trying to put myself back in the time frame and narrow-mindset of my first visit to Vegas and remember, precisely, my first reactions. And I suppose there is an overwhelming tour de force of deviance that hits you as a Vegas newbie.

But the negativity expressed in this article amongst those who study society for a living is equally overwhelming as well.

"It may be interesting," Lowney said, but it's "still creepy. I just hope we never come back.

"Sara Goldrick-Rab, associate professor of educational policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, emphatically agreed. “I found it hard to believe we sociologists would come to a place that clearly thrives on the exploitation of people’s financial and emotional insecurities,” she wrote in an e-mail. “The grotesque treatment of young women was visible and jarring.”
And real (gasp).
Indeed, many ASA members of both genders conceded that they had enjoyed trying their hand at the tables and slots -- at least, until their luck ran out. But all of those who admitted to appreciating the city's signal pursuits asked not to be identified.
I feel an AA moment coming on here: "I'm Todd Krohn, and I love Las Vegas." In fact, that's why I go to Vegas every year, simply to get away from the rarefied world of university life and back in touch with what's real.

A few other daring souls in the article at least broached the idea that perhaps sociologists and academics in general lead "cushy" existences which are challenged by Vegas itself.
Lisa Dawn Wade, assistant professor of sociology at Occidental College, is the founder and one of the editors of Sociological Images, a popular blog that features a variety of pictures and videos drawn from pop culture and media in order to analyze their messages or question their assumptions. Wade said it might not be a bad thing if the city made its visitors uncomfortable.

Academics, she noted, tend to lead "pretty cushy" lives, and spending a few days in a difficult and even disturbing environment could prompt them to think about the "real people" who call the city home -- and about the fact that, in many ways, Las Vegas is just a distilled and amplified representation of the world we all live in. "There's a little bit of Vegas in all of us."

The array of complaints expressed by those at the conference, she said, "should have given us all an opportunity to reflect on our privilege as academics.”
Funny how "privilege" is a term almost exclusively used by sociologists to describe middle class white males in society, but rarely is the term used to describe sociologists themselves.

Thankfully, the UNLV sociologists made it a point to strike back.
Some UNLV faculty members found themselves disappointed by what looked to them like knee-jerk reactions from their visiting colleagues. Las Vegas, they said, is a complex and multifaceted city too quickly written off by those who don't really understand it at all -- and many of the conference attendees, they said, hadn't even tried.

"I'm so sick of hearing people bash Vegas," said Barbara Brents, associate professor of sociology at UNLV. She described her city as "the best spot in the world to do sociology" -- a sentiment echoed by nearly every UNLV faculty member interviewed, as well as a number of grad students and alumni.
Exactly. C. Wright Mills, who advocated in the Sociological Imagination that sociologists should get away from Grand Theory and abstract empiricism, and recognize that the personal is public (and vice versa), would be proud.

Sociology is the mixing of the micro and macro; from conversations, not just with tourists (aren't all good sociologists tourists?) but the people who live and work there, back to the macro, and then back again. As Mills said, "the vivid awareness of the relationship between experience and the wider society."

Do you want to understand the recession, mortgage fraud, foreclosure and macro economics? Go to Vegas and talk to the bartenders, bellhops, cab drivers and dealers. Interview one of those "exploited" call girls, or porn-slappers (the "photographically informative fliers") out on the street. Chat with the drunks or homeless or the old folks smoking and drinking away their last checks at the penny slots. You'll understand the recession's wreckage (and have a better understanding of Wall Street crime) than you could ever imagine.

Or go the other way on the system of stratification: chat up a high roller, the everyday tourist, the "beautiful person"wannabe, or even the knuckle-dragging "Jersey club douche" in his wife-beater. Talk to hotel security about the lengths people will go to scam casinos (and the measures the casinos take to stop them). Talk to law enforcement and casino executives. You'd be amazed at how much people will open up with a few simple questions.

My point is this: none of these critics of Vegas who attended ASA sound like they had the first conversation with the people upon whom they were passing judgment. You can't glance at a few scantily dressed young people, or a gambler down on their luck, and pronounce Vegas "mere exploitation."

It is indeed "privilege" to sit in judgment of the "riff raff" that both visits Vegas and lives there, but it ain't sociology.

Mills must be rolling over on his Harley.

*With apologies to Simon & Garfunkel's "Mrs. Robinson"

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"or even the knuckle-dragging ""Jersey club douche"" in his wife-beater."

Oh, he was there when you went? I saw him too when I went in April.