Features, Social Science

Kimmel and Conflict Theory: Sociology Turns Its Lens onto One of Its Own

Michael Kimmel is a Professor of Sociology and Gender Studies at SUNY Stony Brook who has recently been embroiled in a controversy regarding sexual harassment complaints. He is well-known in disciplinary subfields as a researcher on masculinity who has written several books, including Guyland and Manhood: A Cultural History. Only very recently has he been accused of sexual harassment and professional misconduct — charges that are currently under investigation by the American Sociological Association. A desire to sort out the charges being levied, which are based on language as opposed to physical contact, prompted Kimmel to request a six-month delay of his receipt of the Jessie Bernard award from the American Sociological Association.

The first coverage of the charges against Kimmel was published on August 1 in the Chronicle of Higher Education, through which anonymous complaints about his professional conduct were made public. Then came the August 10 Inside Higher Ed piece, which was based on named complainant Bethany Coston’s medium.com account of her interactions with Kimmel when she was a graduate student. Coston is now an Assistant Professor of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University.

I should preface the rest of this piece by saying that I have never met Professor Kimmel (I have also never met Professor Coston) nor do I know any students who have worked with him — a fact that should not be surprising since none of my work has focused on gender dynamics, gender equity, or masculinity. Further, recent events (unrelated to Coston’s charges) indicate that Kimmel himself has been criticized for a lack of charitability that’s strikingly similar to that of which he is now on the receiving end. However, we can still learn from his situation.

Bethany Coston, Assistant Professor of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at VCU. Source: Twitter

As my understanding of Coston’s allegations is untainted by professional or personal familiarity, it is based exclusively on her medium.com essay. This puts me in a position to evaluate the evidence against Kimmel based solely on, what I understand to be, the most damning account currently available. I have no investment in the outcome and thus no incentive to side one way or another on the handling of claims — other than, of course, a preference that real predators be held accountable and that proportional justice is served. Last, sexual harassment is real and it can have lasting and damaging effects. That reality requires a judicious use of its invocation, lest the term itself become meaningless.

As I went through Coston’s claims, and I have no reason to doubt their veracity, three troublesome themes emerge — each of which can be traced back to the lens of conflict theory. Each interaction and each event is viewed as an instance of labor exploitation, class struggle, or of Kimmel’s perceived resistance to rising class consciousness. My strategy in what follows is to highlight the influence of conflict theory by presenting alternative plausible explanations that do not use that perspective.

Conflict Theory

Conflict theory has, since the 1960s, been one of the three most powerful perspectives that sociologists use to make sense of the world. It’s difficult to overstate its influence as it has served as the foundation for critical theory, queer theory, postmodern theory, and others. With its roots in Marxism, conflict theory holds that the uneven distribution of power and resources between the working-class majority and the power-holding minority creates an unequal social order resulting in the development of a working-class consciousness and, ultimately, an uprising or a revolt — it is a way to view the world as a series of struggles between oppressor and oppressed that are situated within tyrannical hierarchies. To give a sense of its pervasiveness within sociology, C. Wright Mills is one of the sociological theorists most strongly associated with modern conflict theory; Mills is also responsible for developing the concept of “the sociological imagination”, which is taught in introductory textbooks and encourages students to think about the applications of sociological thinking in everyday life. The union between the popularity of modern conflict theory and the widespread teaching of “the sociological imagination” provides a hint at the dominance of the former in the discipline broadly and in how students are taught specifically. Notably, for sociology graduate students especially, this worldview is sometimes why they self-select into sociology in the first place — that and an interest in pursuing an activist career either through research or in an applied manner — and it is continually reinforced in the classroom. It goes without saying that tyranny and oppression exist; however when students are encouraged to believe that this is the only way to see the world, all possibilities for nuance, an evaluation of competing factors, and an openness to a complex series of causes are lost. The recent case of Michael Kimmel can be understood as a real-life manifestation of the ham-handed, universal application of a conflict theory perspective.

Labor Exploitation

It’s worth mentioning that, without a conflict theory lens, Coston’s claims about the misuse of graduate student labor should be qualitatively distinct from an argument that forms the basis for allegations of sexual harassment or a hostile work environment. However, she includes them all in her essay, perhaps precisely because of this lens that unifies all of her examples.

In these examples, the powerless graduate students are workers being exploited by the more powerful faculty adviser. For example, Coston reports that Kimmel asked his graduate students to collect his mail in Long Island and transport it two hours to Brooklyn. Other examples from Coston include answering “ridiculous emails”, “finding new data on a particular topic”, “making charts and tables because he ‘didn’t know’ how”, “printing hard copies of new reports”, and “just generally supporting his ability to be profitable and prolific”. She views these tasks as exploitative and, depending on the context and their frequency, they may indeed constitute an overstepping of the expectations of graduate students. However, as occasional requests, they might simply fall under the broad category of research assistance. With the exception of the mail, there’s nothing among her examples that doesn’t have a minimal research component to it, leaving it open to interpretation. The fact that Coston apparently thinks that additional detail isn’t necessary to make her case is precisely because of the conflict theory lens in place.

Consider the following example where Coston refers to Kimmel’s unwillingness to include an update in his book on what she considers to be outdated information on the sexual practices of same-sex female relationships. Coston writes: “I all but begged him, in my empirical comments, to update the studies he used (including the one about monogamy, which had been updated and found little to no differences between straight and not-straight people).” She views this as evidence of Kimmel’s devaluation of her contribution and of his investment in maintaining power and perpetuating sexual stereotypes. However, again, there is more than one possible reason why he might have neglected to update his citations. Kimmel might have questioned the validity of the work that was being put forth or simply not found it convincing — a possibility that’s far from remote given the broader issues that limit much interdisciplinary work.

Class Struggle

Coston views disparities as resulting from class struggles and as rooted in discriminatory practices against marginalized groups, a hallmark of the conflict theory view. For instance, she writes “[Kimmel] sent men graduate students to conferences — all expenses paid — even expensive trips to conferences in other countries, while expecting women and non-binary students to stay back and continue being glorified secretaries.” There is more than one reason why this could occur — where only one of those possible explanations smacks of discrimination. One might reasonably ask, is it the case that each student was comparably productive and competent? Were they producing work of like quality? These factors would and should matter when an adviser is considering how and where to allocate limited resources. So while it could be that discrimination was at work here, more information is needed to persuasively adjudicate this. However, under conflict theory’s expectation of equal outcomes, anything less is seen as de facto injustice.

Rising Class Consciousness

Some of the most frequent accusations against Kimmel come from a perspective of rising class consciousness and, in these instances, an insatiable need for inclusive language, as defined by Coston. It appears that Coston sees Kimmel’s efforts to meet this need as unsatisfactory, which can be viewed as further evidence of the class struggle against oppression. For instance, Coston writes, “I find Michael and his perspectives to be securely rooted in a benevolent sexist, second-wave feminist, trans-exclusionary frame of reference, which relies so heavily on stereotypical understandings of the gender binary that it also necessitates a homophobic understanding of sexuality” — clearly believing this to be fairly incriminating.

As an example, Coston writes that Kimmel refers to trans men as “almost men”, in a letter he wrote to the Chronicle in 2014 concerning the ultimate title of his book, Guyland. Supposedly more damning given that it’s presented with extra incredulity, Coston writes: “He even once said that “‘TUGS’ are the new ‘LUGS’,” LUGS meaning “lesbian until graduation,” and TUGS meaning “trans until graduation”.’ She goes on, “Even more troublingly, he writes that trans folx “are the quintessential social constructionists”. He doesn’t know how to spell genderqueer and he thinks that “gender-queer people seek to inhabit an intermediate zone, not unlike Pat on SNL or intersexuals.’” Or that “Michael told me he could understand why I’d find that [being in a relationship with a woman] more appealing (“you know, more caring and nurturing I’d bet”).” These examples represent precisely the kind of semantic and linguistic authoritarianism that have made people such as Jordan Peterson famous (for resisting it). The reality is that there is no broad social consensus at this point on how to approach and understand these linguistic issues.

One of Coston’s claims regards explicit sexual talk in the classroom and with graduate students. We can probably assume that, as she’s trying to make a case for herself, the most egregious and offensive examples of Kimmel’s behavior are included in the essay — including talking explicitly about one’s sex life in the classroom, telling attractive women they’ll have to work harder to be taken seriously, and saying he didn’t think porn is bad. Most of us would grant that these comments are probably in poor taste. Although it is worth asking whether these rise to the level of a hostile work environment. Maybe they do. Although, as with most things, the devil is in the details — how often were the comments made, did anyone ever raise the issue with Kimmel directly, what was the context of the conversation, did students reciprocate with stories of their own sexual escapades in a way that sent a confusing message? That last part is not to pass blame — it is simply to understand the context and be mindful of the goal of eliminating the undesirable behavior. However, when seen through the lens of conflict theory, the case seems open and shut.

The Future of Sociology

James Damore once tweeted the question of whether we should have insensitivity training in addition to sensitivity training in the workplace and on campus. The idea is that we would all be better off if people did not immediately impugn the intentions or motives of others. I can imagine an argument, based on some of Coston’s remarks, that sociology should be pilot testing such a program. A conflict theory lens is at its strongest when accompanied, as it usually is, by an unwillingness to allow for a more charitable interpretation or for the complexity of multiple competing factors.

In this case, although she doesn’t use these words, Coston appears to conceptualize many of the examples she provided as microaggressions associated with oppression, where their accumulation has a long-term harming effect. Notably, Scott Lilienfeld, John McWhorter, Bradley Campbell, and Jason Manning have all raised concerns, with respect to the claims of the harm of microaggressions. There’s variation in their concerns to be sure: some are based on the lack of dignity in focusing so heavily on these incidents, some are based on the prevalence of victimhood culture and its implications, and some are based on an analytic question of whether the people who feel harmed in this manner differ psychologically in a way that is consistent with a heightened sensitivity to certain types of comments.

In the end, the indignation seen in Coston’s essay stems from an expectation of a degree of progressive consciousness and a focus on equality of outcome that sit at the center not just of conflict theory, but also of claims of a free speech and viewpoint diversity crisis on campus. The Kimmel case shows us that the response to a lack of meeting these expectations has now risen to the level of exhortation and, apparently, public humiliation. Without a conflict theory lens, there’s nothing in Coston’s piece suggesting that, in terms of the work environment he created, he’s done anything other than make a few off-color, crudely thought-through remarks and that he may have performed poorly as a mentor. However, under the belief that conflict theory completely describes the nature of today’s society, outrage seems a fitting response.

Kimmel might well be a cad. As I said, I’ve never met him. Based on Coston’s description, perhaps he grew too comfortable in his role as arbiter of all things masculine and, over time, the line between personal life and thoughts and professional conduct blurred. This strikes me as something that could be solved with a serious sit-down conversation between Kimmel and his department head after complaints had been made internally — that it is not necessarily worthy of a reputation-destroying outing, certainly not as part of a first attempt. Last, and this is worth saying out loud, referring to people exposed to this type of talk as “survivors” is a gross overapplication of the term.

There is clearly a wide range of online reactions to Coston’s claims. This is seen in the few comments that are present at the end of her medium piece. There’s the incredulous:

“Not exactly a great catalogue of crime is it?”

and the sarcastic:

And “Wow. So brave………?”

But, there’s also:

“Thanks for posting. Tough stuff to come forward with. Tough stuff to read. I’m tired of the bullying culture in academia that makes abusive behaviours from treating grad students as free labout [sic] to enhance one’s own career through to the sexual abuse you detail above. We need to find ways to fight it. Getting it documented is one of the first steps so good on you. I’ll be writing to the ASA (I’m a sociologist in Australia) asking that they address this fully and remove the reward.”

I don’t doubt the sincerity of the people who have come forward saying that they were made uncomfortable by Kimmel. But sociology has encouraged students to see the world in this manner and to see themselves as victims.With the dominance of conflict theory and its offshoots, the discipline has taught and reinforced the belief that society and interactions can be thought of as a series of small battlefields between oppressor and oppressed, and has moved students to tackle problems accordingly. They have been trained to be indignant and to out any situation in which the circumstances might possibly fit into this framework — even if it would be better understood, and therefore solved, with a different, more nuanced and complex understanding. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that sociologists should erase all traces of conflict theory from their instructional material. It should be taught as one of many ways to see the world and society, just not as the only one.


Ilana R. Akresh is an Associate Professor in the Sociology department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. You can find links to more of her writing on the importance of viewpoint diversity and free speech here and you can follow her on Twitter @irakresh


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