Matt’s Favorite Pubs 2020

Matt Rafalow
8 min readDec 31, 2020

Around this time last year I shared a list of articles and books I read over the last 12 months — writing that really shaped my thinking about human behavior. It was so much fun (and so much better than listing things I was proud of about myself…I’m bored even just thinking about it) that I’m doing it again. Here’s 10 pieces I read in 2020 that changed how I see the world.

Braverman, Harry. 1998. Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century. New York: NYU Press. [link]

I have a handful of memories reading pieces of work for the first time and feeling a spark. Time sped by. Words just lifted themselves off the page and hit different. I felt this reading Marx for the first time. I felt that again reading Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital (1998).

To be honest, I didn’t learn a whole lot new about broad theories of labor Marx characterized so well. I was drawn in by the prose – Braverman has a knack for creating engaging portraits of the factory room floor. But I stayed for the processes by which he explains how worker regulation works in practice. Braverman highlights how “scientific management” is the means by which workplace leadership disenfranchise workers day-to-day.

I was recommended the book because I wanted to know how pre-digital technologies were used as part of worker alienation. Braverman does not disappoint: he shared how factory leads even used formal modeling to improve worker efficiency. They’d do things like measure the time needed for a worker to move their arm to use a factory device in order to maximize output.

Sutherland, Tonia. 2017. “Making a Killing: On Race, Ritual, and (Re) membering in Digital Culture.” Preservation, Digital Technology & Culture, 46(1). [link]

I think my favorite reading this year was Sutherland’s “Making a Killing” — I was moved nearly to tears by the end and started to more about digital media landscapes as an oppressive force in social life.

The gist of the piece is that pre-digital media landscapes were not a rosy experience for Black folks: when Black people appeared in news stories and other media they were more often images of violence toward Blacks than anything else. As such, rituals of grief are no stranger to Black people in this country. But Sutherland argues that today’s media landscape — a world where digital culture systematically documents and shares and reshares and reshares and reshares –is a mechanism for trauma. “For Black Americans, the spectacle of Black death that replays itself without purpose or context is traumatic” (p.38).

Pugh, Allison J. 2013. “What good are interviews for thinking about culture? Demystifying interpretive analysis.” American Journal of Cultural Sociology, 1(1): 42–68. [link]

Vaisey, Stephen. 2014. “Is interviewing compatible with the dual-process model of culture?” American Journal of Cultural Sociology, 2(1):150–158. [link]

Pugh, Allison J. 2014. “The divining rod of talk: Emotions, contradictions and the limits of research.” American Journal of Cultural Sociology, 2(1): 159–163. [link]

Yes, three articles — to be read in order. I re-read these articles once every few years, and I learn something new every time I do. Rarely do we get to witness scholars debating important topics in a format like this. It’s a privilege, honestly, to read as researchers who think a great deal about a given topic (kindly) spar with one another through a thought-out writing.

When I was in graduate school there were certainly tensions in our department among faculty in divergent theoretical camps. It wasn’t cute because there were no constructive channels for established researchers to mind meld together. Instead it would happen indirectly. Students felt pressure to choose a camp, and some would seemingly become little zealots. Rarely were there opportunities to test the limits of thinking and learn together–these pieces offer just that. Scholars should be asked to debate like this more often and across a variety of topics.

Lu, Jessica H. and Steele, Catherine K. 2019. “‘Joy is resistance’: cross-platform resilience and (re) invention of Black oral culture online.” Information, Communication & Society, 22(6): 823–837. [link]

Lu and Steele (2019) take thinking about Black joy — the dual pain and celebration of Black experience in this world — to Black folks’ use of digital platforms, showing how the Black folks they studied use such platforms to resist oppressive ideology and also affirm joy. For example, they show how repeated use of multiple hashtags (like #freeblackchild, #carefreeblackkids, and #CareFreeBlackKids2k16) enables a shared community that combats negative portrayals of Blacks in media coverage. As a response, networks across these hashtags floods flood Twitter and Vine with joyful images, instead. A terrific example of work showing how the study of technology adoption is vitally important, and in this case through a shared lens of race and social movements.

Sterne, Jonathan. 2003. “Bourdieu, technique and technology.” Cultural studies, 17(3–4): 367–389. [link]

Sociologists are increasingly (and finally) getting into the game of studying digital technology use. A lot of them are falling into a weird pattern of thinking they are the first to study digital technology. Even more seem to feel this odd pressure to abandon theories we used in a pre-digital world when studying digital phenomena.

Sterne’s (2003) “Bourdieu, technique and technology” is the perfect rejoinder to this, with is written with an engaging prose you just can’t beat. In my opinion, any cultural sociologist interested in digital technology…or really any technology…should read this. Sterne actually does the thing all of us who even minimally dabble in Science and Technology Studies advocate for, which is to trace the study of technology and society back to histories of other devices, like cameras and televisions. He also anchors this discussion to our friend Pierre Bourdieu and in a way that sociologists broadly will understand and appreciate.

In sum, Sterne asks us to develop a ‘sociological eye’ for technology, which “require detailed attention to method, reflection on choices of language and descriptive mode, and the use of carefully constructed sociological concepts to describe the phenomena under analysis (rather than using the available clichés 💁)” (p. 369, emoji added). The bulk of the piece weds Bourdieu’s concept of habitus to the study of technology and provides some great advice for future work.

Christin, Angéle. 2020. Metrics at Work: Journalism and the Contested Meaning of Algorithms. Princeton University Press. [link]

Some of my favorite sociological writing is the study of news coverage — specifically how newsrooms work (like Gans’ Deciding What’s News). Christin’s Metrics at Work (2020) is *the* 21st century take on contemporary newsrooms. It draws together thinking about organizational culture, metrics sense-making, and online publics through a comparative ethnographic approach. Christin studied one newsroom in France and one in the U.S. The prose is off the wall — she’s expert at moving between enchanting portraits of scenes from the field, peppery reflection, and scientific explication.

The book does a lot, but here’s what stands out to me. First, organizational culture (social forces surrounding and within the newsroom – its history, expectations of news coverage, collaborative dynamics) shape how each newsroom does its work and ultimately creates and shares news stories. Second, these conditions guide a particular lens to using digital technologies, like available metrics, to make sense of the relative success of news stories and what to cover next (e.g., the “multiple meanings of clicks” (ch. 4). Fourth, Christin makes the case for “algorithmic publics”: “web analytics mediate the relationship between journalists and their publics, materializing these online collectives through dashboards, metrics, and dials on their computer screens. When journalists look at these digital metrics, they see in one place the complex and distributed communities of online readers that come from Facebook, Twitter, Google, and other algorithmic platforms” (p. 8).

Jacobs, Ronald N. 2012. “Entertainment media and the aesthetic public sphere.” In The oxford handbook of cultural sociology, Eds. Jeffrey C. Alexander, Ronald N. Jacobs and Philip Smith. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [link]

As I’ve been working on my new project about YouTubers, I’ve struggled with how to think about their creative output within cultural sociology and the study of digital technology. Becker’s Art Worlds was certainly helpful but seemed super anchored in artistic communities — the artist, their teammates, their agents, etc. What about audiences? What about genre? What about civic connections between art and society? Jacobs’ (2012) piece helped me so much. He introduces the “aesthetic public sphere” to show how entertainment media is not some vulgar and and anomic phenomena but rather engages the social imaginary to provide people with opportunities to bear witness, process, debate, and (re)conceptualize citizenship.

Accominotti, Fabien, Khan, Shamus R. and Storer, Adam., 2018. “How cultural capital emerged in gilded age America: Musical purification and cross-class inclusion at the New York philharmonic.” American Journal of Sociology, 123(6): 1743–1783. [link]

So the authors of this piece certainly provide a lot of important contributions to the study of social elite. They find really cool patterns in how elites attended high culture events and the extent to which non-elites were still able to participated through “segregated inclusion.” This allowed elites to still feel elite by comparison.

But honestly? Why I love this piece so much is the method. The data is absolutely bonkers and exemplifies why sociological approaches are so great. They collected “complete subscription records for all [New York] Philharmonic subscribers from the late 1880s to the late 1900s” — down to their seating books. Folks: they reconstructed historical nuances in high cultural participation. RAD.

Zukin, Sharon, 2020. “Seeing like a city: how tech became urban.” Theory and Society, 49(5): 941–964. [link]

Zukin’s (2020) piece is one of those articles that feels like a teaser to their broader research agenda and writing, and has led me now down a path of working my way down her published works. In “Seeing like a city,” she identifies an interesting shift–”until the 2010s, digital technology seemed to have little to do with cities” (p.941). What happened? She charts out several factors that led to tech sector growth in metropolitan areas. First, new platforms catered to user needs that were primarily city-based (think: Uber). Second, app developers lived more often in cities and so the human capital was there. Third, city governments created an entrepreneurial approach to public services and turned to tech for growth. Zukin’s work provides a nuanced take on space and its history and the ways these shape social life, and laments that the costs of metro tech hubs are significant.

Wajcman, Judy. “Technology and Time.” In The Oxford Handbook of Sociology and Digital Media, Eds. Deana A. Rohlinger and Sarah Sobieraj. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [link]

Sociological studies of time have always been at the periphery of my thinking, if anything because as a student of youth culture you can’t think about adolescence without thinking about the way time is constructed to different ends. Wajcman joins this thinking with the study of digital technology, masterfully weaving in work from sociology with Science and Technology Studies to guide us toward a focus on contemporary discourses of time and self–optimization.

What I love especially about this piece is how it speaks to sociologists in a way that kindly reminds scholars about our theoretical history (e.g., Marx and how time was constructed even in factory days via labor-time) on a path to debunk assumptions that new technologies inherently “speed up time” (notions of technological determinism). Instead, she argues that we are now on a “quest for efficiency,” using time management apps to “employ[] every minute wisely.” Although Wajcman doesn’t cite Foucault, there is something quite Foucauldian about new pressures to get “control over one’s time” amid busyness not imposed by the self but by the conditions of 21st century work. Super thought provoking.

photo by freestocks