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Interviews with Sociologists about their New Books
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Interviews with Sociologists about their New Books
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    James Ladyman and K. Wiesner, "What Is a Complex System?" (Yale UP, 2020)

    James Ladyman and K. Wiesner, "What Is a Complex System?" (Yale UP, 2020)

    While i find it pretty easy to recognize when i'm reading articles in complexity science, i've never been satisfied by definitions of complexity and related concepts. I'm not alone! Researchers' own attempts to define complex systems incorporate a mix of folk wisdom and fraught assumptions anchored to a menagerie of contested examples. The field was ripe for a 2013 article proposing a unified account of complexity, and it's no less ripe today for this book-length expansion.
    In What Is a Complex System? (Yale UP, 2020), philosopher of science James Ladyman and physicist and mathematician Karoline Wiesner systematically interrogate popular definitions. They break the most commonly cited features into three bins: truisms on which there is universal agreement, the conditions necessary for complexity to arise, and various emergent products of complexity. A key insight of their account, for me, was to understand emergence as a relation between features rather than one feature among many.
    The book is compact, accessible, and at times profound. Indeed, James and Karoline bring the lessons of their account to some of the most consequential complex systems of our time, including Earth's climate and biosphere as well as our global social media ecosystem. I was honored to host them in conversation on this episode, and i encourage listeners to pick up the book itself for deeper dives into the topics we discussed.
    James Ladyman is professor of philosophy at the University of Bristol and works mainly in the philosophy of science. Karoline Wiesner is professor of physics at the University of Potsdam and uses information theory to understand complex systems.
    Cory Brunson is a Research Assistant Professor at the Laboratory for Systems Medicine at the University of Florida. His research focuses on geometric and topological approaches to the analysis of medical and healthcare data. He welcomes book suggestions, listener feedback, and transparent supply chains.
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    • 1 u. 14 min.
    Ismail Fajrie Alatas, "What Is Religious Authority?: Cultivating Islamic Communities in Indonesia" (Princeton UP, 2021)

    Ismail Fajrie Alatas, "What Is Religious Authority?: Cultivating Islamic Communities in Indonesia" (Princeton UP, 2021)

    What Is Religious Authority?: Cultivating Islamic Communities in Indonesia (Princeton UP, 2021) by Ismail Fajrie Alatas draws on groundbreaking anthropological insights to provide a new understanding of Islamic religious authority, showing how religious leaders unite diverse aspects of life and contest differing Muslim perspectives to create distinctly Muslim communities. Taking readers from the eighteenth century to today, Alatas traces the movements of Muslim saints and scholars from Yemen to Indonesia and looks at how they traversed complex cultural settings while opening new channels for the transmission of Islamic teachings. He describes the rise to prominence of Indonesia’s leading Sufi master, Habib Luthfi, and his rivalries with competing religious leaders, revealing why some Muslim voices become authoritative while others don’t. Alatas examines how Habib Luthfi has used the infrastructures of the Sufi order and the Indonesian state to build a durable religious community, while deploying genealogy and hagiography to present himself as a successor of the Prophet Muḥammad. Challenging prevailing conceptions of what it means to be Muslim, What Is Religious Authority? demonstrates how the concrete and sustained labors of translation, mobilization, collaboration, and competition are the very dynamics that give Islam its power and diversity.
    Ismail Fajrie Alatas is an assistant professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, and History at New York University. 
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    • 1 u. 48 min.
    Nick Couldry, “The Value of Voice” (Open Agenda, 2021)

    Nick Couldry, “The Value of Voice” (Open Agenda, 2021)

    The Value of Voice is based on an in-depth filmed conversation between Howard Burton and Nick Couldry, Professor of Media, Communications and Social Theory in the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics. This wide-ranging conversation explores how the media can be used as a filter to examine power structures, political movements, economic interests, democracy and our evolving notion of culture, the importance of voice and the challenge posed by media institutions that order the social, political, cultural, economic, and ethical dimensions of our lives.
    Howard Burton is the founder of the Ideas Roadshow, Ideas on Film and host of the Ideas Roadshow Podcast. He can be reached at howard@ideasroadshow.com.
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    • 1 u. 47 min.
    Vaibhav Saria, "Hijras, Lovers, Brothers: Surviving Sex and Poverty in Rural India" (Fordham UP, 2021)

    Vaibhav Saria, "Hijras, Lovers, Brothers: Surviving Sex and Poverty in Rural India" (Fordham UP, 2021)

    Hijras, one of India’s third gendered or trans populations, have been an enduring presence in the South Asian imagination—in myth, in ritual, and in everyday life, often associated in stigmatized forms with begging and sex work. In more recent years hijras have seen a degree of political emergence as a moral presence in Indian electoral politics, and with heightened vulnerability within global health terms as a high-risk population caught within the AIDS epidemic.
    Hijras, Lovers, Brothers: Surviving Sex and Poverty in Rural India (Fordham UP, 2021) recounts two years living with a group of hijras in rural India. In this riveting ethnography, Vaibhav Saria reveals not just a group of stigmatized or marginalized others but a way of life composed of laughter, struggles, and desires that trouble how we read queerness, kinship, and the psyche.
    Against easy framings of hijras that render them marginalized, Saria shows how hijras makes the normative Indian family possible. The book also shows that particular practices of hijras, such as refusing to use condoms or comply with retroviral regimes, reflect not ignorance, irresponsibility, or illiteracy but rather a specific idiom of erotic asceticism arising in both Hindu and Islamic traditions. This idiom suffuses the densely intertwined registers of erotics, economics, and kinship that inform the everyday lives of hijras and offer a repertoire of self-fashioning beyond the secular horizons of public health or queer theory.
    Engrossingly written and full of keen insights, the book moves from the small pleasures of the everyday—laughter, flirting, teasing—to impossible longings, kinship, and economies of property and substance in order to give a fuller account of trans lives and of Indian society today.
    Hijras, Lovers, Brothers is the winner of the 2021 Joseph W. Elder Prize in the Indian Social Sciences.
    Shraddha Chatterjee is a doctoral candidate at York University, Toronto, and author of Queer Politics in India: Towards Sexual Subaltern Subjects (Routledge, 2018).
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    • 58 min.
    Hillary Angelo, "How Green Became Good: Urbanized Nature and the Making of Cities and Citizens" (U Chicago Press, 2021)

    Hillary Angelo, "How Green Became Good: Urbanized Nature and the Making of Cities and Citizens" (U Chicago Press, 2021)

    As projects like Manhattan's High Line, Chicago's 606, China's eco-cities, and Ethiopia's tree-planting efforts show, cities around the world are devoting serious resources to urban greening. Formerly neglected urban spaces and new high-end developments draw huge crowds thanks to the considerable efforts of city governments. But why are greening projects so widely taken up, and what good do they do? In How Green Became Good: Urbanized Nature and the Making of Cities and Citizens (U Chicago Press, 2021), Hillary Angelo uncovers the origins and meanings of the enduring appeal of urban green space, showing that city planners have long thought that creating green spaces would lead to social improvement. Turning to Germany's Ruhr Valley (a region that, despite its ample open space, was "greened" with the addition of official parks and gardens), Angelo shows that greening is as much a social process as a physical one. She examines three moments in the Ruhr Valley's urban history that inspired the creation of new green spaces: industrialization in the late nineteenth century, postwar democratic ideals of the 1960s, and industrial decline and economic renewal in the early 1990s. Across these distinct historical moments, Angelo shows that the impulse to bring nature into urban life has persistently arisen as a response to a host of social changes, and reveals an enduring conviction that green space will transform us into ideal inhabitants of ideal cities. Ultimately, however, she finds that the creation of urban green space is more about how we imagine social life than about the good it imparts.
    Richard E. Ocejo is associate professor of sociology at John Jay College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY).
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    • 53 min.
    Jennifer Pan, "Welfare for Autocrats: How Social Assistance in China Cares for Its Rulers" (Oxford UP, 2020)

    Jennifer Pan, "Welfare for Autocrats: How Social Assistance in China Cares for Its Rulers" (Oxford UP, 2020)

    Development economists have been doing intensive research in recent years on conditional cash transfer programs as a tool to help get people out of poverty. Meanwhile in the US there has been a lot of talk about Universal Basic Income as a remedy for inequality and social disclocations. On paper, China’s Minimum Livelihood Guarantee, or Dibao, sounds a lot like Universal Basic Income. Jennifer Pan shows that this tool of poverty alleviation has instead been turned into a tool of surveillance and oppression. Ultimately, this focus on “stability” may backfire. Pan’s book Welfare for Autocrats: How Social Assistance in China Cares for Its Rulers (Oxford UP, 2020) offers insights gleaned from a remarkable combination of in-person field interviews, surveys, online field experiments, and data generated from automated analyses of massive numbers of government documents and social media posts.
    Jennifer Pan is an Assistant Professor of Communication, and an Assistant Professor, by courtesy, of Political Science and Sociology at Stanford University. She conducts research at the intersection of political communication and authoritarian politics, showing how authoritarian governments try to control society, how the public responds, and when and why each is successful.
    Host Peter Lorentzen is an Associate Professor in the Department of Economics at the University of San Francisco, where he leads a new digital economy-focused Master's program in Applied Economics. His research examines the political economy of governance and development in China.
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