Judith Blau Interview by Paul DiPerna | Blau Exchange
Judith Blau Interview
moderated by Paul DiPerna
Judith.. when did you know you wanted to become a sociologist?
What ignited your interests to pursue an academic profession?
themes Playing with ideas, freely pursuing ideas,
interviews index debating ideas (and being paid for such fun)
is what attracted me to the academy.
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Can you describe for us a particularly
rewarding project early in your career?
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Still today I am not content with the rigid boundaries of the
academy. I tried to trespass these boundaries in my study of New
York City architectural firms. It was both a study of architectural design
Paul's bio and projects philosophies and an organizational study. In the early 1970s, when I
Paul's email started this project, Charles Jencks (an architecture critic) coined the
term, "postmodern" and this was an "attitude" that was evident in the
design philosophies of the architects I interviewed. New York City was
comments policy nearly bankrupt in 1976, and I returned to the architecture firms that I
their design philosophies were and to study organizations that were at
risk of bankruptcy.
Do you continue to use the same survey and interviewing methods
you used while researching and writing for Architects and Firms
1984)? You surveyed more than 400 architects, examining 152
Manhattan firms over a five-year period.. Can you briefly lay out the
pro's and con's for the research and analytical approach you used?
It's the research puzzle that must always drive the research
methodology. That accounts for why astrophysicists want to keep the
giant telescope in outer space and why medical researchers need
clinical trials. I have used most methodologies and most statistical
techniques I know of in sociology - even, proudly, fuzzy set analysis -
and next semester I am collaborating with a documentary film maker
to learn another methodology to study inter-generational continuities
Do you recommend any other high-quality sociology of organization
studies that might be useful to entrepreneurs, particularly in the
Internet and technology sectors?
I don't use the word, "entrepreneurs", or at least anymore. It does
not go with the global predicaments we face today, which, in my view,
require collective solidarities and collective action. But regardless of
that difference, I learn from network studies.
Sociologists Without Borders (SSF) has been operating for about
five years. It is an organization comprised of academics and
researchers dedicated to transnational activism and support on the
behalf of oppressed people. Is that accurate?
How you describe SSF is partly true. SSF promotes an engaged
sociology - a sociology with a progressive, global perspective.
Consistent with that, SSF has had a presence at the World Social
Forum and will again at the 2007 WSF and at the 2007 US Social
Forum. Another aspect of this is that we aspire to being what Fanon
called, "organic intellectuals", and what Michael Burawoy calls, "public
sociologists" Our interest in human rights, environmental rights, and
popular democracy informs our scholarship and teaching.
SSF-US is one chapter, with Spain the parent chapter, and others
in Brazil and Chile. The US chapter has international members. SSF
also has a journal, Societies without Borders, and we have had
dazzling articles by senior sociologists such as Immanuel Wallerstein
and Bryan S. Turner as well as by younger scholars. SSF is
distinctively global in its perspective, and is happy enough to break
down disciplinary boundaries.
What SSF activities have you been involved in over the years?
We have always had a presence at the American Sociological
Association (ASA) since SSF was founded, at two International
Sociological Association (ISA) meetings, and other chapters have
national meetings. SSF-US has had sessions at regional sociological
In January-- SSF-US will have a meaningful presence at the World
Social Forum, and we will participate in several workshops; for
example, one is with street vendors ad one with other academics. I
think that C.W. Mills'" Sociological Imagination" informs my thinking
about tearing down the walls that now separate higher education and
peoples' everyday struggles. Mills also encourages us to think (as
Wallerstein puts it) utopistically about the future. The WSF reinforces
both of Mills' principles.
In August-- SSF will co-sponsor a conference with Columbia
University's Center for the Study of Human Rights. This is a dream
come true for me. Human rights rests on different epistemological
foundations than liberal social science. Human rights draw from the
humanities, law, philosophy, the environmental sciences, as well as
from the social sciences.
It is not easy to persuade sociologists to engage in these broad
conversations. I have eager expectations that this conference will help
open a broader discussion within SSF and within US Sociology about
sociologists venturing out more securely to tackle the implications of
human rights thinking for research, teaching, and writing.
What are some notable SSF accomplishments?
l The new journal-Societies without Borders;
l Our launching a Thematic Group at the ISA on Human Rights
and Global Justice;
l Beginning the process of forming a new section at ASA on
l We support a student fellowship, which this year will be at the
Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil;
l Five workshops at the Nairobi World Social Forum. Some of
these are co-sponsored with academics from various
these are co-sponsored with academics from various
universities, and some with activists groups.
Of those SSF accomplishments you listed, which would you
consider the most challenging? Why?
Societies without Borders remains the most challenging - attracting
authors and readers - and is ongoing, with reviews and authors'
The bigger challenge is-- Will the journal (along with SSF) help to
shape the future of Sociology? Sociology already has a strong critical
tradition, but human rights thinking is nothing short of subversive.
Has SSF played an active part bringing attention to the situation in
As individual members, faculty, and students do this on their home
campuses, which are the sites of mobilization. There were one million
signatures on a petition presented to the UN on Darfur in October
This scope of mobilizing is on a different scale than SSF can
possibly achieve. SSF however draws attention to the global harms of
neoliberalism, transnational multinational corporations, economic
exploitation. In my view, it is most important now for Americans to be
self-critical of how the US is committing egregious harms to human
Can you describe how the Internet has helped (or hindered) the
work of SSF?
I would guess that close to a third of our more or less 200
members are international. Their contributions to the list-serve
discussions are extremely valuable. All of the organizing for
international and national meetings, and the World Social Forum takes
place on the Internet. As co-editor of our journal, I cannot imagine an
international journal such as ours without the Internet.
There are interesting academic controversies about universal
social science vs. indigenous social sciences. Some of these
controversies have to do with the universality of knowledge, and some
have to do with, say, visions of the "good society". SSF is in a good
position to explore these controversies. Human rights are in a
fundamental sense universal - the rights to health care, water, decent
employment, etc., but human rights also privileges peoples' particular
rights to culture, to local knowledge. Interesting puzzles!
You have a new book that will come out next year. Can you
describe the organizing themes, and how you were motivated to write
In the first I wrote with Alberto Moncada, we tried to puzzle through
some of the consequences of American (and also European)
liberalism for capitalism and for Americans' (especially) understanding
of rights, in the context of the growing global understanding that rights
include economic and environmental rights, food rights, and so forth.
In our second book, we carry out a comparison of constitutions,
and show how most have been revised to include human rights. Then
we present a draft U.S. Constitution that includes these rights.
In the third, we bring in Jean-Paul Sartre's and Hannah Arendt's
very different conceptions of freedom to link these up with human
rights. and see how they play out for a better (fairer and more
egalitarian) economic system and more participatory governance.
These are "what if" provocations.
What is "deep democracy"?
Judith Green, a philosopher, uses that term in a recent book on
participatory democracy. As sociologists, not philosophers, we took
her term and in one chapter presented one model of how participatory
democracy would work. The key, we learned, was that politics and
partisanship (relics of industrialization) had to go, and in its place are
substantive areas - everything from air quality to zoos - that could be
decided locally, with a cascade of decision makers going up, from
locale to county to state to the federal level.
In one chapter, I understand you look at examine UNESCO'sWIS
and IT projects for establishing democracy from the ground up, less
reliant on traditional institutions, using the Web and other information
communications technologies. Can you go into further detail regarding
what you learned, and what implications there may be for grass roots
and social movements in the future?
There have been some marvelous, truly exciting, pilot programs
launched by UNESCO to foster local democracy, even including very
technical areas, such as citizens engaged in making municipal budget
decisions. There are processes going on of assessing these pilot
programs, but from the perspective of anyone who believes that
human rights and democracy are intimately connected, as I do, this is
Do you see any dangers with participatory democracy?
There are two classic dangers inherent in the State - a dictator
usurping power and deadly intergroup conflict. First, representative
democracy is vulnerable to the first because of citizen apathy (and
apathy is an inevitable outcome of representative democracy). I
believe many Americans understand now how this might work. We
have seen with our own eyes how a big country can be hijacked by an
Participatory democracy is not about power in the classic sense,
but rather competence, expertise, influence, collaboration.
But the second is more complex, I believe. Participatory
democracy, in and of itself, has no particular implications for
intergroup conflict. However when economic inequalities do not
exacerbate social and cultural differences (as I am assuming with
worker-owned enterprises), the incentives for intergroup conflict are
Pluralism is I believe the true "state of nature." What erodes this is
capitalism (imposing superficial uniformities), the liberal State (which
promotes the idea of content-less, equal citizens), colonialism,
religious imperialism, neoliberalism. But with globalism we are
discovering again - like children - the joys and pleasures of pluralism.
Do you think digital governance (e-governance) will increasingly
fuel participatory democracy in both developing and developed
countries as we head into the future?
What might be the implications?
There is, of course, the digital divide, but people in developing
countries have, in many respects, more innovative than those in
developed countries. Nomads use satellite to find water and
vegetation; peasant-farmers use the cell phone to find out about prices
in distant markets; the women of Africa used things like instant
messaging to start electronic networks to mobilize women for
signatures on the African human rights protocol for women's rights.
Last summer, when I was in a poor peasant community in the
mountains of northern Minas Gerais, Brazil, I met with the mayor (and
school principal, trade union leader and others). I asked them what the
villagers could most use. At the top of their list was a tower for cell
A 2005 2005 Rutgers University report endorsed the kinds of digital
governance initiatives like UNESCO's ongoing efforts in developing
countries. The report cited a need to bridge a growing digital divide.
Is this an emerging socioeconomic gap that needs more attention?
These understate the global inequalities. United Nations
Development Programme Reports and the World Bank reports show
that the South-North gap is increasing, not narrowing. This gap means
that close to one-half of the world's population live in unacceptable
poverty, are food and water insecure, and, besides, bear the brunt of
environmental disasters and epidemics.
These economic inequalities
are a violation of human rights, a "The empirical
violation of humanness. Unless data are
these barbaric inequalities are very grim"
reduced and the gaps closed soon, the future of the planet is
imperiled. I think any who studies globalization is likely to come up with
this conclusion. The empirical data are very grim.
How useful is Thomas Friedman's "the world is flat" thesis to
understanding global inequalities and the way peoples in developing
countries are organizing themselves to improve their living conditions?
Friedman's flat world is made up of ubiquitous markets,
paradoxically not completely unlike Marx for whom the world would be
made up of equal workers. Both are unrealistically utopian in that they
do not address the reality that there are diverse and fluid cultures,
ethnicities, races, religions, genders. People have great stakes in
such things as these because they are the source of individual
freedom and identity.
When it comes to the reduction of global inequalities.. do you see
an example, or examples (aside from UN or other NGOs), of
government-led transnational initiatives offering hope for the future?
Here you raise the $64,000 question. Alberto and I have written a
chapter in our forthcoming book on worker ownership and worker
control (of course with local and global markets). The UN framework, if
all states would agree, already has the philosophical premises of
economic egalitarian principles. And, many NGOs are advancing
practices for economic equality (or, economic security, an important
human right). These include rights to a job, rights to land, rights to a
decent wage. And, the energies from the World Social Forum are
vigorously pushing for economic rights, and the WSF is mostly an
amalgam of NGOs. (NGOs are not to be underestimated - the
Independent Sector in the U.S. estimates there are about 1 million in
The really big question is what will get the ball rolling. I don't have
any idea. Humans are wise enough to know that a world revolution is
not the answer. There are little clues however. Some countries have
seen a dramatic growth in community empowerment and self-
governance, worker-owned firms, and Internet technologies speed
innovations quickly around the globe. NGOs such as the "Shack
people" of South Africa communicate with the San Francisco
homeless NGOs. Technology, in other words, may play the central
role in a global peoples' movement. This is speculative, but is based
on a close reading of WWW postings and several international list-
serves of NGOs.
Let me give a concrete example. Soon the International Covenant
for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights will have a new Protocol that
will make litigation easier. The way the protocol is written NGOs will
play a major role. I have been following the discussions (in Egypt,
India, Brazil, etc.) about how NGOs will work with communities and
citizens to file charges against their countries and landlords for
evictions and homelessness. So much activity is taking place that is
globally coordinated that I conclude that positive changes will happen
quickly. The U.S. has not ratified the Covenant but citizen pressure is
bound to build in America as Americans learn what is happening
What kinds of projects will you be doing in the next year?
I am addicted to these puzzles. They are unending. Alberto and I
have started our fourth book, which will take about a year to write. His
background - living in Morocco, Spain, Peru, the US -is helpful. He
has ties in Latin America, whereas I am pulled by the magnets of
African countries. He founded with other Madrid social scientists,
Sociologists without Borders. We co-edit the journal, Societies without
Borders, and have a book series, with Ken Gould, an environmental
sociologist, on human rights, environmental rights, and popular
democracy. Of course, none of this would be possible without the
I know what I will be working on, but what is harder to predict is how
the academic NGO and journal will grow - how members will discover
projects for the NGO, and whether creative and talented authors will
submit papers to the journal.
Both now are growing at a good pace.
December 1, 2006
Hi all, Thought you might be interested in the following
deep democracy links. Cheers,
Deep Democracy Institute
Deep Democracy Movement
Stanford Silver | July 18, 2007 at 7:00 PM
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