'Ruined for Life!' That's the proud slogan of the Jesuit Volunteer Corp, and it fits Berkeley sociology, too. I was delighted and constantly incredulous when there: here was a whole institution filled with people who were creative, stubborn, politically committed and active, hyper-intellectual, sensitive to the nuances of everyday interaction and eager to theorize about their own lives, constantly aware that another world is possible' as weird as me, in other words. How could this be? Is it true that I can do something so genuinely subversive for a living?? I wondered.
I think it's true at some universities, for some people, but such positions are as rare and randomly hard to come by as I had suspected. This miracle of social attentiveness is not normal sociology. I feel most like I am fulfilling that mission when I'm teaching undergraduates from northern Wisconsin who come to my office halfway through the semester to say that they just figured out that disagreement is not always bad, not always the sign of a fight. I sort of feel I'm fulfilling the mission when writing for nonacademic audiences, though I always wonder if anyone will read what I wrote.
I can't separate the experience of grad school from life in the Bay area. The weightless sunlight; living on almost no money thanks to now-defunct rent control; and the day or two a week I was producing news and public affairs at KPFA, marveling there at a cast of characters as imaginative, scrupulous, and non-standard as I'd encountered at UC. All together, Berkeley offered a utopian model of living. Luckily, I have a bit of Berkeley with me, in the form of Paul Lichterman; we struggle to maintain that imagination even while living outside of a city, with two children who can't wait for that other 'possible world,' in the insistently non-utopian midwest. We each have a half-time position at UW.
Aside from the direct experience of listening to my undergrads, I don't know how to tell if my sociology is changing the world. I wrote a book, Avoiding Politics: How Americans Produce Apathy in Everyday Life, that people seem to be reading. It's an ethnography of voluntary associations, that starts with those nuances of everyday interaction to ask how people actively avoid appearing to care about the world. Right now, I'm working on a book about youth programs in the US, that are supported by an odd mixture of state, nonprofit, market, and civic institutions. I'm asking how moral and political dialogue happens in these places.