Born in Detroit to Crimean Tatar and Turkish parents, I grew up in Ann Arbor and then in Santa Barbara. During my high school years, I lived in Mexico City, where I attended a private American School. In college at the University of California-Davis, I studied psychology and English literature. After a year in the psychology Ph.D. program at the University of Michigan, where I had hoped to study psychoanalytic theory, I moved on to earn a sociology Ph.D. at Harvard. I was inspired by writings by the Frankfurt School on the connection between psychoanalysis and sociology. This early interest in linkages between the personal and the social led to my dissertation work on the historical transformation of moral and civic education in American public schools, focusing on class-based, religious, and ethnic conflicts over the shaping of moral character and the formation of a democratic citizenry. Durkheim's lectures on The Evolution of Educational Thought provided theoretical guidance on how to think historically and sociologically about educational institutions, curriculum and pedagogy, and the development of individual dispositions.
While at the New School for Social Research as an assistant professor, I was drawn into engagement with Deweyan pragmatism, not only for its impact on American educational history but also for its many exciting possibilities for constructive sociological theory-building. During those years, I became intrigued as well by the assumptions underlying social network analysis—and by the connections between network-analytic and pragmatist thinking. I became convinced that a relational turn in sociology was necessary and that pragmatism, with its focus on transactions and relations, could help in providing it with a sound philosophical and theoretical foundation. More broadly, too, I saw in pragmatism—and its antifoundationalist orientation—a valuable fount of ideas for how to reconstruct social thought in an age no longer fully committed to the quest for certainty. The pragmatist revival was still very much on my mind even as I left the New School and joined the faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. For an account of the so-called "New York School" of relational sociology, of which I was a part, click here.
During my years at Wisconsin, I continued to build on the project of elaborating a pragmatism-inspired relational sociology. I also returned to my original interests in Freud—but now in a more relational and sociological spirit—to explore the role of collective emotions and fantasies in contentious politics as well as to think about the social psychology of self-blockage and self-defeat. I also wrote about underlying theoretical affinities between pragmatism and ethnomethodology and about pragmatism's conceptualization of action as an alternative to Weberian action theory. But at the same time, I became dissatisfied with shortcomings in pragmatist inquiry—in particular, its lack of a theoretical apparatus for analyzing structures of domination. This in turn led me to Bourdieu, who himself was a relational thinker but who also offered something that pragmatism largely did not: a theory of domination. I wrote about Bourdieu and relational inquiry in areas as far-ranging as organization studies, social work, and social movement analysis. But I also wrote about what Dewey supplied but Bourdieu does not: a satisfactory conceptualization of democracy. My work on civil society and the public sphere remains inspired by Dewey, as does my thinking about racial democracy.
The past several years, I completed a two-volume project on race in America (coauthored with Matthew Desmond) influenced in equal measure by Bourdieu and Dewey, as well as by Durkheim, whose cultural sociology still very much informs my thinking. One of the companion volumes in this project, Race in America, is pitched to a mass-market readership, while the other, The Racial Order, is oriented to a specialized audience. Both works rely heavily on advances taking place not only in sociology but also in philosophy, anthropology, political science, economics, history, and literary and art criticism, not to mention exciting developments in whiteness studies, critical race theory, and cultural studies, and both books fuse this social thought with music, novels, poetry, and popular culture. My next book will be about internalized oppression, or what I call self-negation. It will deploy insights from relational psychoanalysis, among other theoretical sources, and draw widely from history, literature, and ethnography to explore how social psychology and the sociology of domination potentially inform one another. Through what psychical processes do people contribute to their own falling short? And what kinds of societal contexts encourage, support, or channel this self-negation?