The reasons for my fascination with authoritarian states and the ways that people manage to live in them are probably better left unexplored. In any case, they have led me to research on rhetorical strategies, cultural conflicts and strategies of everyday life in dictatorial environments like 1970's Argentina and 1990's Serbia. On some level, this has put me in the company of area-studies researchers, which is only partly consistent with my motivation. One of the principal reasons for going far afield to study life in authoritarian contexts has been the perception that authoritarianism is never very far away. As Theodor Adorno put it not too long after the Second World War, "the continued existence of fascism within democracy is more threatening than the continued existence of fascist tendencies against democracy." The examples that make this insight applicable to the contemporary United States will change several times long before the productivity of the insight is exhausted.
Berkeley's sociology department first attracted me because of its tradition of exploring the connections between political structures, cultural forms and social outcomes. While recognizing that "professional" sociology offers a foundation, it is "public" sociology that opens the opportunity for a dialogue about essential issues. The faculty provided outstanding models for the practice of public sociology, and the program offered me the freedom to find a path into the field. Several years out, it is still a difficult path to trace forward. But the impulse to affirm basic human values by inviting audiences to consider the cultural dimensions of political issues is strong, and it developed under the (not always conscious or intentional) guidance of Berkeley scholars like Franz Schurmann, Todd Gitlin, Troy Duster, Bob Blauner and Robert Bellah.
When my dissertation was published in 1999 as The Culture of Power in Serbia, I saw it as an affirmation of how ground-level sociological explanation could move political discussions beyond the level of moralism and essentialism. I was gratified to see it praised as insightful, complex and nuanced, and also to see it condemned as an apology for, depending on the reviewer, Serbian fascism or US imperialism. I took these as signs that public sociology still has the potential to catalyze both scholarly and political attention. My present research, on processes of social accounting for guilt and responsibility in the wake of gross human rights violations will, I hope, be no less productive or controversial.
One primary goal remains finding ways to bring the discussion back home. I have been privileged to have the chance to bring the strands of concern together in courses on political sociology, popular culture, human rights and genocide. If research can make the strange familiar, and education make the familiar strange, there may be some purpose in engaging in both after all.