Judith Blau Interview by Paul DiPerna | Blau Exchange


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December 1, 2006

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Judith Blau Interview by Paul DiPerna | Blau Exchange

  1. 1. Site Search Judith Blau Interview moderated by Paul DiPerna Paul DiPerna: Judith.. when did you know you wanted to become a sociologist? What ignited your interests to pursue an academic profession? home Judith Blau: introduction themes Playing with ideas, freely pursuing ideas, interviews index debating ideas (and being paid for such fun) is what attracted me to the academy. Paul DiPerna: subscribe to email updates Blau's Bio Can you describe for us a particularly rewarding project early in your career? Judith Blau: RSS for interviews 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 privacy policy had earlier studied. This gave me an opportunity to ask how persistent their design philosophies were and to study organizations that were at risk of bankruptcy. Paul DiPerna: 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? Judith Blau: 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 and discontinuities. Paul DiPerna: Do you recommend any other high-quality sociology of organization studies that might be useful to entrepreneurs, particularly in the Internet and technology sectors? Judith Blau: 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.
  2. 2. Paul DiPerna: 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? Judith Blau: 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. Paul DiPerna: What SSF activities have you been involved in over the years? Judith Blau: 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 society meetings. 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. Paul DiPerna: What are some notable SSF accomplishments? Judith Blau: 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 Human Rights; 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
  3. 3. these are co-sponsored with academics from various universities, and some with activists groups. Paul DiPerna: Of those SSF accomplishments you listed, which would you consider the most challenging? Why? Judith Blau: Societies without Borders remains the most challenging - attracting authors and readers - and is ongoing, with reviews and authors' revisions. 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. Paul DiPerna: Has SSF played an active part bringing attention to the situation in Darfur, Sudan? Judith Blau: 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 2006. 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 populations. Paul DiPerna: Can you describe how the Internet has helped (or hindered) the work of SSF? Judith Blau: 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. Paul DiPerna: Any anecdotes? Judith Blau: 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! Paul DiPerna: You have a new book that will come out next year. Can you describe the organizing themes, and how you were motivated to write the volume? Judith Blau: 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.
  4. 4. 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. Paul DiPerna: What is "deep democracy"? Judith Blau: 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. Paul DiPerna: 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? Judith Blau: 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 very exciting. Paul DiPerna: Do you see any dangers with participatory democracy? Judith Blau: 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 ideological president. 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 low. 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. Paul DiPerna:
  5. 5. 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? Judith Blau: 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 phones. Paul DiPerna: 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? Judith Blau: 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. Paul DiPerna: 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? Judith Blau: 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. Paul DiPerna: 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? Judith Blau: 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
  6. 6. 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 U.S.) 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 elsewhere. Paul DiPerna: What kinds of projects will you be doing in the next year? Judith Blau: 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 Internet. 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 Comments (1) Hi all, Thought you might be interested in the following deep democracy links. Cheers, Deep Democracy Deep Democracy Institute Deep Democracy Movement Stanford Silver | July 18, 2007 at 7:00 PM
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