I arrived, in 1991, as a rugby-playing, theory-loving feminist from Chicago who'd spent enough time waiting tables, processing words and hammering nails to realize that the 'life of the mind' held a lot more appeal for me than the life of physical labor and dead-end jobs. Go figure. And, like many others in my wonderful cohort of misfits and malcontents, I had absolutely no idea what being a sociologist actually meant (well I had lots of ideas, but all of them turned out to be more or less wrong), but I was pretty sure that Berkeley home of radical politics and hyphenated identities was the perfect place to find out. I wanted a job that fused academia and activism and I thought that's what all sociologists did.
I'd have to say that those first few years at Berkeley provided me with a rude awakening to the politics of professional gate-keeping and disciplinary boundary-drawing within an elite department at a prestigious university. As a result, I felt alienated from the department as an institution, but nurtured by the intellectual and political stimulation and comraderie that I found within the graduate student community. And, even though I remained alienated from the institutional dimension of sociology, I felt incredibly engaged by the seminars and teaching I encountered, and excited by the substance of sociology and social theory. Or rather, excited by the substance of Berkeley-style sociology it wasn't until well into my graduate career that I actually held an issue of the ASR in my hands and took a close look at it ... and when I did I was absolutely stunned. I can still remember standing in the library stacks thinking: This is sociology?
My most exciting, challenging and rewarding years at Berkeley were spent doing and digesting ethnography with Michael Burawoy and a group of like-minded (though of course we rarely agreed on anything or perhaps it was just that they never seemed to agree with me!) students within the safe haven of the global ethnographies working group. During this time the second half of the 1990s I immersed myself in various cancer communities in the San Francisco Bay Area and wrote a multi-sited ethnography of breast cancer activism and its relationship to changing regimes of breast cancer treatment. I loved my work but I remained ambivalent about the narrowing, deradicalizing process of professionalization. I started graduate school as an activist and I left graduate school as a sociologist of activism, and that pretty much sums up the dulled, double edge of that sword. After leaving Berkeley I spent two memorable years as a fellow in an interdisciplinary program at the University of Michigan, where I broadened my research focus to include the pharmaceutical industry and the medicalization of risk.
While at Michigan, I became increasingly interested in interdisciplinary studies of science, medicine and technology and I'm now happily ensconced in a job of that sort at Georgia Tech, in a department full of historians and sociologists with similar interests. I'm still trying to figure out how to do a better job fusing academia and activism. Since I don't believe that inequality and injustice will be remedied by the production of more or even better knowledge, I try to use my research and teaching to undermine and problematize dominant forms of power/knowledge, their usages, their production, and their effects on us. That being said, a couple of months ago, at an unnamed university where I was nonetheless giving a talk and trying to produce a little bit of knowledge, if not power, of my own, a senior colleague, his voice full of outrage yet simultaneously dripping with condescension (a real talent), stood up and announced to all assembled, That's not sociology! That's just an attack on capitalism! And it's an awfully smug one at that! Despite my ongoing ambivalence about my status as a sociologist, I experienced a flurry of reactions. The professional in me was threatened (Uh oh. I'm being locked out of the clubhouse.) The sociologist in me was insulted (Hey! I thought that was some pretty good sociology I just presented!) The perpetual Burawoy student in me was pleased (Great! I attacked capitalism and pissed someone off. I must sound very Gramscian). The social theorist in me was dismayed (But wait a second! That was supposed to be a Foucaultian analysis of the pharmaceutical industry not a Gramscian attack on capitalism!). And the befuddled activist in me sat there with my mouth wide open, unsure what to do.