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Virtual Book Launch

Virtual Book Talk | The Invention of the ‘Underclass’: A Study in the Politics of Knowledge

05/04 Wednesday | 5pm

RSVP is required. Please RSVP here.

NYU’s Institute for Public Knowledge invites you to a virtual book talk via zoom for The Invention of the ‘Underclass’: A Study in the Politics of Knowledge featuring the author Loïc Wacquant in conversation with Thomas Sugrue, Neil Gross, Kimberley Johnson, and moderated by Eric Klinenberg.

At century’s close, American social scientists, policy analysts, philanthropists and politicians became obsessed with a fearsome and mysterious new group said to be ravaging the ghetto: the urban “underclass.” Soon the scarecrow category and its demonic imagery were exported to the United Kingdom and continental Europe and agitated the international study of exclusion in the postindustrial metropolis.

In this punchy book, Loïc Wacquant retraces the invention and metamorphoses of this racialized folk devil, from the structural conception of Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal to the behavioral notion of Washington think-tank experts to the neo-ecological formulation of sociologist William Julius Wilson. He uncovers the springs of the sudden irruption, accelerated circulation, and abrupt evaporation of the “underclass” from public debate, and reflects on the implications for the social epistemology of urban marginality. What accounts for the “lemming effect” that drew a generation of scholars of race and poverty over a scientific cliff? What are the conditions for the formation and bursting of “conceptual speculative bubbles”? What is the role of think tanks, journalism, and politics in imposing “turnkey problematics” upon social researchers? What are the special quandaries posed by the naming of dispossessed and dishonored populations in scientific discourse and how can we reformulate the explosive question of “race” to avoid these troubles? Answering these questions constitutes an exacting exercise in epistemic reflexivity in the tradition of Bachelard, Canguilhem and Bourdieu, and it issues in a clarion call for social scientists to defend their intellectual autonomy against the encroachments of outside powers, be they state officials, the media, think tanks, or philanthropic organizations.

Loïc Wacquant is a professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, and researcher at the Centre de sociologie européenne, Paris. His work deals with comparative urban inequality, ethnoracial domination, the penal state, the body and social theory. His books are translated in 20 languages and include Urban Outcasts: A Comparative Sociology of Advanced Marginality (2008), Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity (2009), Body and Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer (expanded anniversary edition, 2022), The Invention of the “Underclass”: A Study in the Politics of Knowledge (2022), and Bourdieu in the City: Challenging Urban Theory (forthcoming with Polity Press).

Neil Gross is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Sociology at Colby College. A Senior Editor at Theory and Society, he works on social theory, the sociology of intellectuals, politics, and the police. His latest project, The New Pragmatist Sociology: Inquiry, Agency, and Democracy, co-edited with Isaac Reed and Christopher Winship, will be published in June.

Thomas J. Sugrue is Silver Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis and History and Director of the Cities Collaborative at New York University. He is the author of four books, including the prizewinning, Origins of the Urban Crisis, and editor of four others, most recently Immigration and Metropolitan Revitalization (2017) and Neoliberal Cities (2020). He has contributed to the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, National Geographic, the Washington Post, the London Review of Books, The New Yorker, The Nation, and Salon.  He is a frequent commentator on modern American history, politics, civil rights, and urban policy. Sugrue has given nearly 400 public lectures throughout the United States and Canada, as well as in Europe, South America, the Middle East, and Asia.

Kimberley Johnson is a professor at the Social & Cultural Analysis department at New York University and is an affiliated faculty at NYU Wagner. Kimberley Johnson’s research focuses on urban and metropolitan politics, federalism and intergovernmental relations, race and ethnic politics, and American political development, particularly the intersection between state and society. Kimberley is the author of numerous articles as well as two books, Governing the American State (Princeton University Press) and Reforming Jim Crow (Oxford University Press). She is currently working on a book manuscript, Dark Concrete: Black Power Urbanism and the American Metropolis.

Eric Klinenberg is Helen Gould Shepard Professor of Social Science and Director of the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University. He is the author of Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life (Crown, 2018), Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone (The Penguin Press, 2012), Fighting for Air: The Battle to Control America’s Media (Metropolitan Books, 2007), and Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago (University of Chicago Press, 2002), as well as the editor of Cultural Production in a Digital Age, co-editor of Antidemocracy in America (Columbia University Press, 2019), and co-author, with Aziz Ansari, of the New York Times #1 bestseller Modern Romance (The Penguin Press, 2015). His scholarly work has been published in journals including the American Sociological Review, Theory and Society, and Ethnography, and he has contributed to The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone, and This American Life.

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