I am working on projects examining how professional communities assign moral significance to their work. Two papers are available:
Advertising morality: Maintaining moral worth in a stigmatized profession (with Andrew C. Cohen)
Theory & Society 47, no. 2 (2018): 175-206
Although a great deal of literature has looked at how individuals respond to stigma, far less has been written about how professional groups address challenges to their self-perception as abiding by clear moral standards. In this paper, we ask how professional group members maintain a positive self-perception in face of moral stigma. Drawing on pragmatic and cultural sociology, we claim that professional communities hold narratives that link various aspects of the work their members perform with specific understanding of the common good. These narratives allow professionals to maintain a shared view of their work as benefitting society and to perceive themselves as moral individuals. As a case study, we focus on the advertising industry, which has long been stigmatized as complicit in exploitative capitalist mechanisms and cultural degradation. We draw on 9 total months of fieldwork and 74 interviews across three U.S. advertising agencies. We find that advertising practitioners use narratives to present their work as contributing to the common good, depicting themselves as moral individuals who care about others in the process. We analyze three prevalent narratives: the account-driven narrative, which links moral virtue to caring for clients; the creative-driven narrative, which ties caring to the production of meaningful advertisements; and the strategic-driven narrative, which sees caring in finding meaningful relationships for consumers and brands.
This paper won the Altruism, Morality, and Social Solidarity Outstanding Published Article Award from the American Sociological Association, and is available at this link.
Sociological Critique, Pragmatics, and Moral Practice (with Samuel D. Stabler)
Recent scholarship in the sociology and philosophy of social science has suggested numerous ways of clarifying how sociological research can contribute to a good society. This literature has turned to cognitive psychology and moral philosophy for potential grounding. However, this scholarship has paid little attention to the concrete ways in which sociologists debate the rightfulness of their methodological assumptions and the normative meanings they attach to them. In this paper, we offer a new perspective by which to analyze the ways social scientists proffer, manage, and weather moral critiques within their disciplines. Drawing on the work of Boltanski, Chiapello, and Thévenot, we trace methodological-cum-moral debates across three sociological subfields: globalization, secularization, and intensive parenting. We demonstrate that in each debate, critics challenge a common sociological assumption both empirically and normatively. We further demonstrate that sociologists pursue multiple paths in responding to such critique. One such way is embracing the critique and rejecting former sociological methods in favor of new ones. Another is a partial reform of existing practices. A third is acknowledging the critique, but circumventing it by using it as a jumping off point to study new empirical domains. We claim that the seemingly mundane workings of sociological research constitute a site in which sociologists often grapple with the ethics of the discipline and its impact on society. Existing scholarly efforts to define or reevaluate the ethical underpinnings of the discipline would benefit from accounting for ways sociologists already evaluate their work.