Uneasy Street: Sociology Professor Rachel Sherman’s New Book Tackles the “Anxieties of Affluence”

Sociologist Rachel Sherman quickly observed a common trait among the wealthy and affluent subjects of her latest book, Uneasy Street: the Anxieties of Affluence.

They hated getting specific about money. It is, in the words of one interviewee, “more private than sex.”

In part, Sherman—Associate Professor of Sociology at The New School for Social Research—attributes this reluctance to her subjects’ often-ambivalent relationship to wealth. The 50 New York parents she interviewed over the course of this multi-year study all belong to the top five percent of earners, meaning that they bring in more than $250,000 per year, and the majority are in the top one or two percent. Some benefited from substantial inheritances, which in several cases in excess of $10 million. Sherman chose to focus on people in their 40’s and 50’s who were embarking upon home renovation projects, given that such undertakings provide occasions for intentioned thinking about consumption and lifestyle choices.

The project has roots in Sherman’s longtime interest in structures of inequality in the United States and in the evolution of her thinking over the course of two previous ethnographic projects.

It was during her dissertation research on luxury hotels that Sherman identified a similar ambivalence about wealth among hotel guests, who were adamant that it was important to treat workers well. “I wouldn’t have talked about it this way then,” she said of the hotel guests she interviewed, “but I think they wanted to be morally worthy of their privilege.” That study—which Sherman developed into her 2007 book Class Acts: Service and Inequality in Luxury Hotels—focused primarily on hotel workers rather than guests. Yet, Sherman recalls, “Even then, the larger question of what it means to have money in a socially acceptable way was interesting to me.”

“There Was No Berlin Wall, and It Never Fell”

Media sociologist Julia Sonnevend begins her first book, Stories Without Borders (Oxford), with a provocative opening salvo.

“There was no Berlin Wall,” she writes, “and it never fell.”

Sonnevend, who joins the Department of Sociology at The New School for Social Research this summer, spends the remainder of the book elaborating on the significance of this assertion. In the process, Stories Without Borders contributes to our understanding of how the meaning of events evolves alongside their symbolic representation. Using the fall of the Berlin Wall as a case study, Sonnevend proposes aspects of what she calls “global iconic events.” From there, she analyzes the factors—many of them related to media reportage and representation—that contribute to the transformation of certain events into enduring and compelling stories.

“If you want an event to be remembered over time,” she explained, “you have to turn it into a simple, condensed, universalized myth.”

In the case of the Berlin Wall, mythology elides the complex bureaucratic processes, political maneuvering, tense meetings, and delicate deal-making involved in negotiating the opening of the East German border. As Sonnevend put it, we instead tell each other “a mythical story about the Wall: that it just magically came down. We remember a quick, split-second event, when ordinary people had the power and determination to overcome a seeming permanent division.”

This willingness to neglect the facts of an event’s complicated history in favor of an enchanting (though less accurate) story represents a non-rational element of human behavior that ties together multiple strands in Sonnevend’s research. “I’m interested in the idea that we might be far less rational—far less fact-oriented—than we might imagine ourselves to be,” she said.

Her latest work deals with the concept of charm, which she says has long proven an elusive topic despite its pervasiveness in social life, and which can produce similarly non-rational social responses. “We all know charming people,” she said, “It’s a quality that’s very important in everyday interactions. But it’s very hard to measure, and very hard to describe.”

According to Sonnevend, scholars in fields like international relations have previously asked what it means to have a charming leader, and have long used—alongside journalists—phrases like “charm offensive” to describe diplomatic interactions. Sonnevend explained that she is interested in examining media representations of charm in international relations contexts, but she also wants to understand charm’s everyday social manifestations. At the heart of her current work lie questions about how charm influences individuals, how it differs from charisma, and how it can convince individuals to act in non-rational ways.

Sonnevend arrives at The New School for Social Research from the University of Michigan. She received her doctorate in Communications from Columbia University and previously completed a Master of Laws (L.L.M.) degree at Yale Law School, as well as a J.D. and M.A. in German Studies and Aesthetics at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest. Originally from Hungary, Sonnevend brings to the Sociology Department a breadth of research interests in the sociology of media, and a passion for working across disciplinary lines and in different genres of scholarly production. She has already contributed a piece on contemporary borders to Public Seminar.

“Contemporary academia is often very siloed in terms of departments and disciplines,” Sonnevend said, adding that the particular interdisciplinary quality of scholarship at The New School for Social Research was part of what attracted her. Similarly important was NSSR’s progressive history and its openness to active faculty participation in public debate. “I see myself as a combination of an academic and a public intellectual or essayist,” Sonnevend said, “And it seems to me that one can play those roles here at The New School. I am also very much looking forward to contributing to the Journalism & Design program at Eugene Lang College.”

In the 2017-18 academic year, Sonnevend will co-teach a graduate course on media and micropolitics with Jeffrey Goldfarb, the Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology. She will also offer an undergraduate course on “visual media and society.” She says that she is excited to teach students interested in media and communication across The New School’s divisions.

Photograph cred. István Huszti (Index)

 

What is an Event?” A New Book from Sociologist Robin-Wagner Pacifici

“It’s unusual for sociologists to study events,” says Robin Wagner-Pacifici. When describing her new book What is an Event? (University of Chicago Press), she explains that historians more often think about the implications of eventful, momentous, idiosyncratic, one-off episodes that stand out in narratives about the past.

Events like 9/11, the Great Recession, or the Paris Commune of 1871—all of which Wagner-Pacifici examines in the book—don’t fit neatly into sociology’s attempts to articulate general laws about societies. Indeed, they may look like exceptions to these laws, and Wagner-Pacifici characterizes a resulting “skepticism about the ways in which events reflect something enduring about society.” From this disciplinary perspective, What is an Event? might read like a departure from typical sociological research.

It does not, however, mark a departure from Wagner-Pacifici’s distinctive scholarship and longtime curiosity about how events help shape our understanding of societies more broadly. The University in Exile Professor of Sociology at The New School for Social Research says that she has always studied events, drawing from multiple disciplines in the process, precisely to discern what they might illuminate about social relations.

Wagner-Pacifici describes a growing realization about the usefulness of events during the process of writing her dissertation on the kidnapping and assassination of former Prime Minister of Italy Aldo Moro, subsequently published by the University of Chicago Press as The Moro Morality Play: Terrorism as Social Drama. She says, “It struck me that I could usefully try to apply frameworks from other disciplines and other societies to contemporary events in large-scale modern societies.” In other words, a systematic study of the concept of events—the forms they take, why they feel exceptional, how they evolve, and how they weave themselves into ordinary life—can play a significant role in shaping how we think about the social world.