Power, Resistance, and Change: (Disaster) Sociology in the Trump Era

Presented at the Annual Meetings of the Society for the Study of Social Problems – August 13, 2017

Marc R. Settembrino, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Sociology
Southeastern Louisiana University

The idea for this paper came shortly after January 20, 2017. Like so many of you, I was riding the proverbial emotional roller coaster. I was high from a weekend of protest and solidarity, but dreading the months and years ahead.

It was also time to commit to a topic for this year’s meetings, so, I put together the following abstract:

Disaster sociologists and our colleagues in other social science disciplines have provided critical examinations of how social inequality produces and is reproduced by “man-made” and “natural” disasters.  Due to our long and symbiotic relationship with the Federal government, American disaster sociologists have been influential in shaping the way that government agencies prepare for and respond to disasters. However, today our relationship and influence seems uncertain. Though unpredictable, this paper examines the future of disaster sociology within the context of the Trump administration. Specifically, this paper examines the challenges that disaster researchers face in political climate dominated by austerity, “alternative facts”, and uncertainty. In this paper, I propose strategies through which disaster sociologists can resist and subvert attempts to obfuscate knowledge and silence dissent.

I’ve struggled to write this paper for several reasons.

First, avoidance has been my primary survival tactic. Ignorance, has been bliss and I’m fine not knowing everything that happens in Washington, DC or on Twitter.

Second, there’s too much to keep up with. Last week, we got a leaked climate change report, learned that the FBI raided his former campaign managers home, continue to hold our breath as Trump tweets us closer to war with North Korea, and today we mourn the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.

So, this paper isn’t what I imagined it would be.

I’m not going to review the list of attacks on science, the academy, and humanity in general, today. We are all aware of them and many of us are already working to oppose them.

I’m not sure that we can ever trust government. But, for a long time, many of us wanted to believe we could.

We wanted to believe that what the President of the United States said was at least partially true, even if it was steeped in imperialism. We believed we could turn to government agencies to find “objective” information about our society and our planet. We even imagined we could work with our government to create an equitable society.

In the current era, we can neither trust the President of the United States nor any of the agencies he controls.

Telling the “Truth”

Despite the rise of “fake news” – many have begun to rely on journalists and the corporate media, to give us the “truth”. But where do they get the truth from? That’s where we come in.

I didn’t attend, but this year’s Natural Hazards Workshop, but it included a panel of journalists who offered scientists advice for communicating about disasters.

Jolie Breedan, of the Natural Hazards Center, recently published a summary of the panel’s advice, which you can find on the Hazards Center’s website.

The advice includes:

  1. Building relationships – with journalists
  2. Become a trusted source – provide behind the scenes or “off the record” tips and information
  3. Try not to talk (too much) like a scientist
  4. Leverage social media

These are great starting points for all of us.

We should be building relationships – not just with reporters, but also with state and local policy makers. By building these relationships, you can become a trusted source who might actually influence policy; at the local level, where policy matters most. This umes we know anything about policy in the first place.

But, to influence policy, we have to learn how to talk to policy makers and regular people in general. This has been a problem in sociology for decades now. I am not the first person, nor will I be the last to say this.

We spend a lot of time learning how to talk to other sociologists. We learn the rules of “writing for publication” in journals that no one reads and we forget how to talk to non-sociologists.

Even those of us at teaching institutions struggle to communicate sociology to our students.

As Doni Loseke reminded us last night in her presidential address, we need to stop telling stories like sociologists.

But, that doesn’t mean that we need to abandon our principles. It just means that we need to make our principles accessible to audiences outside of conference rooms and academic circles.

Many sociologists have already learned how to do this. They have leveraged social media and have created blogs that have been read by thousands, and in some cases, millions of people. This has given rise to a class of Twitter famous, sociological Rockstars. There is also a lot of noise from other sociologists promoting their work and, dare I say egos, on social media. I may be a millennial, but I am skeptical that social media is the answer to our problems.

At its core, the advice to talk to strangers and build relationships encourages us as sociologists, to think and act locally. In our own departments, on our campuses, and in our neighborhoods.

It’s not about 45

At some point, I read commentary that Donald Trump was the first Brand elected to be president. Perhaps, this is one of the more poignant assessments of our current situation.

Because, the truth is, Donald Trump is not the problem.

Yes, he’s racist, sexist, transphobic and panders to nazis. But we’re sociologists. We know that it’s bigger than just one person. A point emphasized by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva in his presentation here yesterday morning.

We know that the problems we face are systemic. I don’t have to explain this at the annual meetings of the Society for the Study of Social Problems.

Aside from his attempts to drag us into nuclear war, we know that the attacks on science, knowledge, and our humanity started long before Donald Trump and will likely continue after him.

A few years ago, at the Natural Hazards Workshop, I was on a Panel on Social Vulnerability. In my final remarks I said something to the effect of “as long as we live in a capitalist, white supremacist, hetero-patriarchy we will continue have disasters.” We will continue to have vulnerable populations because we have decided that it’s okay for some people to die because it’s more important for others to make a profit.

As sociologists, we know that capitalism and white supremacy are killing us.

As a society. As a discipline. And as Individuals.

Sadly, some in our discipline have been enticed by the capitalist/white supremacist fantasy and have come to enjoy their petit bourgeois standing. They will continue to defend and advance the capitalist regime’s agenda.

So, what are we supposed to do?

Emergent Strategy

I’d like to get back to the idea of thinking and acting locally.

In February, I started reading “Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds” by adrienne maree brown. Adrienne is black woman, author, activist, and science-fiction scholar. She was mentored by Grace Lee Bogs, and has been inspired by Octavia Butler.

I’d like to share with you, adrienne’s explanation of emergent strategy:

According to Nick Obolensky, “emergence is the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions.” In the frame work of emergence, the whole is a mirror of the parts. Existence is fractal – the health of the cell is the health of the species and the planet.

There are examples of emergence everywhere.

Birds don’t make a plan to migrate, raising resources to fund their way, packing for scare times, mapping out their pit stops. They feel a call in the bodies that they must go, and they follow it, responding to each other, each bringing their adaptations.

There is an art to flocking: staying separate enough not to crowd each other, aligned enough to maintain a shared direction, and cohesive enough to always move toward each other.

Emergence is beyond what the sum of its parts could even imagine.

A group of caterpillars or nymphs might not see flight in their future, but it’s inevitable.

Oak trees don’t set an intention to listen to each other better, or agree to hold tight to each other when the next storm comes. Under the earth, always, they reach for each other, they grow such that their roots are intertwined and create a system of strength that is resilient on a sunny day as it is in a hurricane.

Dandelions don’t know whether they are a weed or a brilliance. But each seed can create a field of dandelions. We are invited to be prolific. And to return fertility to the soil around us.

Cells may not know civilization is possible. They don’t amass many units as they can sign up to be the same. No – they grow until they split, complexify. Then they interact and intersect and discover their purpose – I am a lung cell! I am a tongue cell! And they serve it, and they die. And what emerges from these cycles are complex organisms, systems, movements, and societies.

Nothing is wasted, or a failure. Emergence is a system that makes use of everything in the iterative process. It’s all data.

Octavia Butler said, “civilization is to groups what intelligence is to individuals. It’s a means of combining the intelligence of many to achieve on going group adaptation.”

She also said, “all that you touch you change / all that you change, changes you.” We are constantly impacting and changing our civilization – each other, ourselves, intimates, strangers. And we are working to transform a world that is, by its very nature, in a constant state of change.

Janine Benyus, a student of biomimicry, says, “nature/life would always create conditions conductive to life.” She tells of a radical fringe of scientists who are realizing that natural selection isn’t individual, but mutual – that species only survive if they learn to be a community.

How can we, future ancestors, align ourselves with the most resilient practices of emergence as a species?

Many of us have been socialized to understand that constant growth, violent competition, and critical mass are the way to create change. But emergence shows us that adaptation and evolution depend more upon critical, deep, and authentic connections, a thread that can be tugged for support and resilience. It’s the quality of the connections between the nodes in the patterns that matters most.

I have re-read these pages countless times over the last six months. There is beauty in adriene’s prose, and power in her metaphors.

Please allow me to transfer these metaphors to the academy and our discipline.

Emergent Problems in Sociology

We might say that birds do in fact, plan to migrate. They eat and store energy for the lean times of their long migrations. But let’s apply this to sociology. As a graduate student, I was trained to always be thinking about what comes next. As a master’s student, I had to be competitive for PhD programs. As a doctoral candidate, I had to be competitive for tenure track jobs. As a junior faculty member, I have to both earn tenure AND keep myself competitive for other jobs.

So how does one stay competitive? Through presenting at conferences, publishing in journals, and accumulating grants and fellowships. We cannot allow our curiosity to shape our research agendas, rather, we must shape our research agendas around the interests of faculty advisors, grant funders, and potential employers. Our work should be sexy, but not too weird.

Being competitive requires us to pull away from each other; to focus on our own needs and our own desired outcomes.

We cannot be a flock if we are all flying in different directions; or, bouncing between multiple conference venues.

Maybe caterpillars know that they will become butterflies one day. They keep munching way on leaves because they know how beautiful they will become in a few weeks. The dream of graduating certainly carried me through my dissertation. But, I think there is a deeper lesson to be learned.

We are socialized to be focused on the outcomes of our work, rather than the work itself.

We need to allow ourselves and each other to be caterpillars: to take our time, carefully munching away, so that we can become butterflies. But deadlines, university time limits, and budget cuts get in the way.

We’re all familiar with imposter syndrome. I regularly catch myself worrying that someone will figure out that I’m not that smart. Or that I didn’t quite read all of those books I was supposed to in graduate school. I can’t help but think this is also tied to the culture of “being competitive”. It plants the seeds of doubt in each of us. But, like the dandelion, we are neither weeds nor brilliance. We are invited to be prolific. We are invited to share ourselves and our ideas with our students and the world.

Sometimes those ideas can get us in to trouble.

We come together each time one of our colleagues is attacked by facists. We write letters, sign petitions, and scream for justice at the top of our lungs on social media. But these displays of solidarity are temporary. We need stronger, deeper, and more interconnected roots. Showing up during a crisis is important, but we need to support each other and keep one another in the ground at all times. When one of us falls, it weakens the entire discipline.

Like Adrienne says, many of us have been socialized to understand constant growth, violent competition, and critical mass as the key to what comes next. But what comes next may not be what you wanted it to be.

As individuals, we need to resist the neoliberal push for constant growth. More students, more money, more faculty lines, more publications. At what point will it be enough? At what point will you be enough?

Competition is deeply engrained in the white psyche. It has polluted generations of human beings and destroyed entire civilizations. I would like to say that we’re allowing it to destroy sociology, too. But, the truth is that legacy of white supremacy, competition, and elitism is in our sociological DNA.

I don’t know how we can drive it out, but we must. Our careers and our lives depend on it.

Emergent Sociology?

This week, we are reminded of just how many sociologists there are. Thousands of us have gathered at ASA, SSSI, ABS, ASR, and here at SSSP. But many of us feel alienated and anonymous.

This probably has a lot to do with how we feel at home, on our campuses, and in our departments.

Where we work with others out of necessity and obligation, rather than mutual respect and understanding. We allow conflicts between sub-fields, methodological preferences, and political orientations to drive us apart. And, our students see this, and they replicate the behavior.

With or without Trump, we are in crisis.

It’s likely that our discipline will survive this crisis. But what it looks like and who is a part of it depends entirely upon us.

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