New Book is Out!

I’m late in announcing this, but my latest book, Affective Labour: (Dis)Assembling Distance and Difference (with Jennifer G. Correa) is now available as a hardback, paperback, and e-book. If you buy directly from Rowman and Littlefield, you can use the following promotional code and save 30%: RLI093

Below are some of the reviews:

Thomas and Correa offer an important empirical study of affective labor’s central role in sustaining two pillars of inequality: racial difference and socio-spatial distance. Noteworthy for its comparative and relational approaches, Affective Labour reveals the entwinements between racism and affect in everyday practices and places.
Paula Ioanide, Associate Professor of Comparative Race and Ethnicity Studies, Ithaca College

In this theoretically groundbreaking yet remarkably accessible book, Thomas and Correa establish a strong case for why affect should matter to scholars of race and racism, as well as to activists working for social justice. Affective Labour describes the painstaking work of identification, the crafting of difference, and the production of social distance, in effect asking how forms of violence and exclusion become imaginable or unimaginable. The book takes the reader on an intellectual journey from a college-town bar scene to the US-Mexico border, through the contemporary diversity regimes of predominantly white institutions. The authors then bring the lessons from these case studies to bear on the emergent affective politics of Black Lives Matter and similar radical democratic social movements. In spite of the grimly neoliberal landscapes of difference and inequality it explores, Affective Labour remains optimistic in its evocation of coming into being and the potential for an affect of liberation in progressive politics. ​
Rebecca R. Scott, Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Missouri-Columbia

Bringing together critical social, cultural and political analysis, phenomenology and original ethnographic research, this book is a must read for anyone interested in the politics of affect. Thomas and Correa provide an imaginative and incisive account of how the manufacturing of gendered, racialised, sexualised, and classed relations of distance and difference is a matter of affective labour. Through a diverse range of in depth examples – from American nightlife cultures, to University diversity-initiatives, to the #BlackLivesMatter movement – the book offers a refreshing and distinctive examination of the affective work of everyday life and its wider critical implications. The analysis offered is at once productively troubling and optimistic: Contemporary forms of affective labour frequently work to reproduce relations of domination, but they also fuel solidarity, resistance and ‘a sense of hope for what can be, despite the reality of what is’.
Carolyn Pedwell, Senior Lecturer in Cultural Studies/Cultural Sociology, University of Kent

Thomas and Correa’s expansive research into distance and difference takes us on an immersive journey into configurations of affective subjectivity – from above and below. Carefully crafted case studies of urban nightlife in Columbia, Missouri, ‘War on Terror’ at the US-Mexico border, diversity regimes in higher education, and the #BlackLivesMatter Movement, underline why affect should be of critical concern to social, cultural and political theorists. Affective Labour is an original and timely contribution that will have implications for how we approach the politics of difference in the classroom, the polity and on the street.
Christopher Kyriakides, Associate Professor of Sociology, York University, Canada


New Pub on Phenomenologies of Racial Power, with Jennifer Correa

My colleague and dear friend, Jennifer Correa, and I recently had our article on Latino border patrol agents and the dynamics of racial power published in the new American Sociological Association journal, Sociology of Race and Ethnicity.

Entitled, “The Rebirth of the U.S.-Mexico Border”, in it Jennifer and I expand upon Nick Crossley’s “phenomenology of power” to articulate the dynamic interplay between race, space, and power as it’s practiced in the policing of brown bodies by brown bodies along the U.S.-Mexico border. We describe a phenomenology of racial power as

“the cultural and social “thickness” of racial embodiment [which] recognizes that power is a fluid force within ‘institutions, laws, [as well as the] practices of political officials, law enforcers, and practitioners” (Crossley 1994:197). It is through these sets of relations that the body’s materiality is produced. Further, it is through the body’s materiality that we apprehend the world or accomplish being-in-the-world. These processes are interdependent and inseparable in the unfolding of everyday life. Each action of the body reconfigures the spaces it inhabits, enabling and/or constraining its ability to expand beyond those spaces.”

Our focus on the phenomenology of racial power aims to address my previous call for a more dynamic account of culture in the enabling and constraining of contemporary racialization by centering the experiences of Latina/o state agents who function as both enforcers and targets of racial power.

Jennifer and I are currently working on a book together, with Rowman and Littlefield, entitled Affective Labour: (Dis)Assembling Difference and Distance, in which we theorize affective labor as both producer and product of phenomenologies of power.

Excerpt from Ch.2, Working to Laugh (2015)

Here is a brief excerpt from Chapter 2 of my book, Working to Laugh (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2015)

[Chapter 2: Into the Field, p.33-36]

Along the central avenue running east and west, and cutting through the heart of The District, is Helter Skelter. A self-described punk/rock/sci-fi/horror bar, Helter Skelter is perhaps the most culturally eclectic and unique of all of Collegetown’s nightlife venues. The large building that houses Helter Skelter was once the original location of several independent movie theater venues. The first theater opened in 1907, with just over one thousand seats for predominantly viewing silent films. In 1929, a large fire destroyed this theater. It was eventually restored, exchanged owners, and from 1935 to 1985, the building operated as a movie house under several different names, the last one being the most popular. In the early years following its restoration, the theater was ‘invitation only.’ This designation allowed the theater to deny entry to men and women of color during legalized racial segregation, though by the time the theater closed in 1986 both white and nonwhite residents frequented the venue. Unique to the restoration of the theater in 1935 was the inclusion of a balcony, and the only theater in Collegetown at the time used exclusively for feature-length film viewing. The other three downtown venues at the time featured vaudeville acts and other live, performance arts, though they also showcased feature-length films.

Though it may appear odd that a town with a relatively small population at the time would have three theater venues, the context of this period in American popular culture history indicates otherwise. The pre- and post-World War II eras of U.S. history precluded the era of theatre mega-plexes like the now popular Cinemark and Hollywood Movie chains. In 1922, the film industry was the fourth-largest in the nation. By the end of the 1920s, over fifty million people were attending movies each week in the United States, at a time when the nation’s population was only 115 million.[i] These smaller theaters, then, were necessary to meet the public’s increasing demand for film entertainment.

Helter Skelter first opened in 1997 (under a different name) in a small portion of the old theater’s space, with the rest of the building occupied by a sandwich shop and a vintage video-game trading store. The owner/operator of Helter Skelter is Santino, a New Jersey transplant to Collegetown. A self-described ‘wild kid’ growing up, Santino worked as a pipefitter in New York City in his early adulthood. In the late 1990s, opportunities for work as a union pipefitter in New York City became scarce, and Santino relocated to Collegetown, taking a union job at the major University’s power plant. Having a long-held desire to one day run his own bar and tavern, but with overhead costs too expensive on the East Coast, Santino found Collegetown’s relatively cheap real estate market encouraging. He soon quit his job at the power plant to open his dream adult nightlife hangout.

The original Helter Skelter had a much more sinister sounding name. However, local scrutiny of the establishment was often based on perceptions of the original name, with many locals believing it to be connected to the occult, to criminal activities, and to other less-than desirable subcultures. These perceptions led Santino to eventually change the name of his establishment to its current title. Helter Skelter, according to Santino, was inspired by three themes that had a huge influence on his teenage years and through his early adulthood: horror, science fiction, and rock music. Posters of Star Wars and cult-classic B-movies adorn the walls. Novelty skulls and graphics of flames accompany them. Halloween rubber masks are juxtaposed with metal-rock memorabilia, and, in the early 2000s, there was even a life-sized cardboard cutout of Darth Vader stuck to the bar’s door. In an interview with the local paper shortly after Helter Skelter opened, Santino recounted his inspiration for his establishment’s design:

In my childhood, one of the best ways to relax were horror and sci-fi movies…It was kind of escapism. A fantasy world…What seems strange or grotesque to others seems quite normal to me.

Along the shelves above the booths inside of Helter Skelter are dolls and figurines from popular, American horror films: Chucky from Child’s Play, Freddy Krueger from the Nightmare on Elm Street films, Jason from the Friday the 13th franchise, Pinhead from the Hellraiser series, and Michael Myers from the Halloween franchise. Along the ceiling, the large HVAC system is painted in the image of a giant squid, and the air ducts extending out from it are painted to resemble large tentacles gripping the ceiling. The wall above the front of the bar is painted in the caricature of a nude female demon, complete with a long tail and a sexually suggestive pose. Near the pool table in the back of the bar hangs a large poster from the Rob Zombie-directed The Devil’s Rejects.

In August of 2001, Santino opened a second venue across the street from Helter Skelter, aptly titled Helter Skelter Live. A concert hall meant to be an extension of its sibling, Santino intended to use Helter Skelter Live to showcase the musical underground of bigger cities, including Chicago, St. Louis, and Houston. Like Helter Skelter, the rock/sci-fi/horror theme resonated in the room. A life-sized doll of Frankenstein’s monster and a vampire-toothed skull were just some of the venue’s décor. However, in just over a year, Helter Skelter Live closed down. A sprinkler system had gone off during a live show, a symptom of the interior deterioration within the building. With little capital or time to invest in repairs, Santino closed the doors to Helter Skelter Live, and instead turned his complete attention to his original bar and tavern across the street. With a desire to continue with live rock music shows, Santino began to devote his weekends to hosting similar bands to the ones he had been bringing in during the fifteen months his live venue was open. Some of the musical acts that have played live at Helter Skelter include: The Misfits, the late Joe Strummer (of the Clash), and Marky Ramone. Santino proudly boasts that even Sebastian Bach, lead singer of hair-metal band, Skid Row, came in one night just to hang out after playing a concert at another venue in The District.

Currently, Helter Skelter serves a rather eclectic demographic, no doubt influenced by its décor and its weekly rotation of thematic entertainment. Monday nights are ‘Geek Night’, with free pool, darts, and board games offered to customers. Tuesday nights are designated for the amateur comedy show that was the focus of my research. Wednesday night is ‘Trivia Night’, and Thursday night is advertised as Collegetown’s ‘biggest and best karaoke night.’ Comics from Tuesday’s live show often frequent Helter Skelter on Wednesday and Thursday to participate in the bar’s activities. Friday night is themed, ‘Dirty Disco’, a mix of 1970s disco music with punk, horror, and sci-fi themed attire worn by customers. Finally, Saturday night is, with few exceptions, reserved for live musical performances by local, regional, and national acts, fulfilling Santino’s desire to provide Collegetown with a taste of the musical underground of larger, urban nightlife.

Though the eclectic nature of Helter Skelter’s weekly offerings would appear to make it difficult to attract and keep a regular crowd, it actually has the opposite effect. Patrons who frequent Helter Skelter state they do so because it is not like the dozens of other bars and nightlife venues within The District. While many of these other venues attempt to cater to the dominant college-aged demographic – White, heterosexual, upper-middle to upper-class, and of similar mainstream cultural tastes – Helter Skelter makes no such efforts. Specials on mainstream beer products like Budweiser, Miller, and Coors are not offered at Helter Skelter, whereas they are prevalent at all of the other nightlife venues in The District. Instead, Pabst and Stag products are offered at similar, or cheaper, price points.[ii] The patrons who frequent Helter Skelter on a given night are highly unlikely to frequent the more mainstream venues of The District, precisely because Helter Skelter’s patrons do not identify with mainstream Collegetown culture.

The typical crowd at Helter Skelter is almost exclusively White, but unlike other venues, many of the patrons at Helter Skelter both talk and perform working-class identities. These identities come through in the style of clothing worn, the topics of conversation, and the affinity for the aforementioned Pabst and Stag beer products over the more common Budweiser, Miller, and Coors products, as a matter of working-class performance. Meaning, drinking a Pabst or Stag communicates to others that Helter Skelter is ‘your kind of place’. In addition, staff at Helter Skelter participate in working-class performativity through their verbal shaming of customers who do order mainstream products, including what staff refer to as ‘girlie drinks.’ Young men, in particular, are quickly made aware that, while in Helter Skelter, they should drink generic beers like Pabst and Stag, or whiskey, either neat or mixed with soda.


Working to Laugh

[i] For an excellent edited volume on American film history, see The Wiley-Blackwell History of American Film (Wiley Blackwell, 2011), edited by Cynthia Lucia, Roy Grundmann, and Art Simon. This four-volume set covers the origins of American film through the contemporary period, with essays by a number of cultural historians, anthropologists, and other scholars of popular culture.

[ii] I found it quite funny when it was pointed out to me by a colleague that the ‘daily specials’ advertised on the drinks board behind Helter Skelter’s bar were, in fact, not ‘specials’ at all. They are the normal prices, but are simply rotated on a nightly basis. So, Tuesday Nights were “$5 Whiskey doubles”, but this was actually the normal price throughout the rest of the week.

Working to Laugh, in a Bookstore Near You!

My book is out! It’s available on, or directly through the Rowman and Littlefield website. If you buy from Rowman and Littlefield, use the promo code “LEX30AUTH15” for a 30% discount.

If you’re unsure about ordering a personal copy, be a good colleague and ask your library to order one!

Working to Laugh (2015)

Thomas, James M. Working to Laugh: Assembling Difference in American Stand-Up Comedy Venues (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2015)

Laugh Through It: Assembling Difference in an American Stand-Up Comedy Club

Check out my newest article, ‘Laugh Through it,’ available online first through the journal, Ethnography


Through an examination of a Midwestern professional comedy club, this article theorizes stand-up comedy as part of the broader affective-cultural assemblage that is nightlife entertainment. Using the Deleuzian notion of assemblage, this analysis builds on poststructural accounts of the dynamic and transient properties of culture, and the relationship between space, culture, and affect. As a specific affective-cultural assemblage, stand-up comedy operates as both constrainer and enabler of racial and heteronormative order through the bringing together of a variety of diverse logics and practices. I argue that stand-up comedy should no longer be thought of strictly in discursive or symbolic-interactionist terms that over-determine the roles of particular agents (i.e. comics). Instead, when described as emergent, transient, and fundamentally affective, stand-up comedy and other cultural forms can be seen for their openness and multiplicity, both contributing to racial and heteronormative order as well as upending it.

Diagnosing Racism

(Excerpt from manuscript conditionally accepted)

…In 1969, a group of Black psychiatrists, including Alvin Poussaint, presented a list of demands to the American Psychiatric Association at their annual meeting. The demands included acknowledging racism as the “major mental health problem of this country,” and the addition of extreme bigotry as an officially recognized mental illness within the Diagnostics and Statistics Manual (DSM). At a news conference following the presentation, Poussaint told the press, “It’s a contradiction in terms for someone to say that he’s a psychiatrist – that is, someone who deals in mental health – and at the same time openly practice racism and segregation.” The APA’s official response expressed gratitude for the presentation, endorsing its “general spirit of reform and redress of racial inequities in American psychiatry.” However, the APA rejected the demand to classify extreme bigotry as a mental illness on the grounds that in order for racism to be considered a mental illness, it would have to deviate from normative behavior.

In their rejection, the APA specifically cited a series of studies conducted by the Harvard social psychologist, Thomas Pettigrew. Interviewing residents of eight small towns in the North and South in the late 1950s, Pettigrew had tested, among other things, whether Southerners exhibited a stronger ‘authoritarian personality’ than Northerners. Pettigrew determined that while Southerners exhibited a higher level of prejudice toward Blacks than their Northern counterparts, the level of authoritarianism among Northerners and Southerners was virtually identical. In sum, racism was normal behavior, and as such the APA refused to acknowledge it as an abnormal condition.

Despite the APA’s rejection, clinical workers pressed on, developing treatment models for the effects of racism, as well as for individual racists. One of the more infamous examples occurred following the 1967 deadly shoot out between Houston police officers and students at the all-Black Texas Southern University. Then-mayor Louie Welch called upon Dr. Blair Justice, a Rice University psychology professor, to initiate a psychotherapeutic program to alleviate tensions between Houston police officers and Houston’s Black community. By 1969, group sessions including up to two hundred officers and community members at a time were being led by psychologists. These sessions encouraged heated exchanges between participants in order to get deep-seated prejudices out in the open. After just one year, Mayor Welch and other prominent city officials were touting the program’s success based upon pre- and post-tests of police attitudes demonstrating a small decrease in identifiable prejudices.

Meanwhile, within its own ranks, the APA’s rejection of the motion to classify racism was, and remains, highly contentious. In 1971, then-Vice President of the APA, Charles Prudhomme, wrote an editorial for the APA’s official journal, The American Journal of Psychiatry, asserting that racism “parallels and is an analog of psychosocial development.” At the APA’s 1979 annual meeting, the prominent psychiatrist Carl Bell gave a paper later published in the Journal of The National Medical Association, entitled “Racism: A Symptom of the Narcissistic Personality Disorder.” Linking his diagnosis to findings from The Authoritarian Personality, Bell claimed the narcissistic racist is a person whose racism is primarily a symptom of a narcissistic personality disorder. Patients suffering from narcissistic racism seek constant praise from their authority figures as a means of sustaining their self-esteem. To illustrate an extreme case of this disorder, Bell quoted the scholar-activist, Angela Davis: “Because it was drummed into the heads of U.S. soldiers that they were confronting an inferior race, they could believe that raping Vietnamese women was a necessary soldierly duty.”

Finally, in his presidential address at the APA’s 1980 annual meeting, Alan Stone remarked on the contentious debate within the APA between those members who regret the association’s stances on social issues, and those members who believe that social issues, including racism, are clearly psychiatric in nature. Stone stated, “Our professional training obliges us to understand conflict rather than repress or deny it, and I believe that in view of recent events the time has come to confront this conflict openly.” While Stone’s remarks did little to end the debate, some scholars took his remarks seriously. Poussaint and Bell remained critical and vocal of the APA for not including racism in the DSM III in 1980, its revision in 1987, and the DSM IV in 1994, voicing their dissent in both mainstream and academic presses.

By the late 1980s, a number of clinical psychologists and psychiatrists were proposing diagnostic tools for identifying and treating racism as a psychopathological condition. Judith Skillings and James Dobbins, for example, in a 1991 article entitled “Racism as a Disease”, proposed a clinical diagnosis through the identification of four symptoms: a belief that one’s heritage is superior to another; when racism becomes infectious without any conscious sense of antipathy by the person who is the host; when’s one’s perceptions are merely distorted or confused; and by identifying racism as a “silent killer” that robs its hosts and targets of their mental and emotional well-being. Skillings and Dobbins even suggested the access to power that racism affords produces a dependency upon that source of power for the individual racist. In other words, racism is addictive!

In a 2000 article entitled “Racism as Clinical Syndrome”, Dobbins and Skillings describe four signs of this addiction: rationalization (“I know we need to increase diversity, in general, but why do I have to play a part?”), selective comparison (“I can’t be racist, because I’ve never called any Mexican a wetback”), protecting the source of addiction (“I know I have White privilege, but what do you want me to, give it up?”), and minimization (“I’m not being racist, I’m just telling it like it is”). Meanwhile, Edward Dunbar, a clinical psychologist at UCLA, initiated a series of clinical studies in the mid 1990s meant to develop an instrument for measuring what he termed a ‘prejudiced personality.’ Individuals with high scores on Dunbar’s ‘prejudice scale’ included clients who distrusted financial advice from racial and ethnic minorities, job loss due to the inability to interact appropriately with customers of color, and even one who expressed support for the Oklahoma City bombing.

By the early 2000s, racism had several clinical names, though no official diagnosis within the DSM: prejudice personality, intolerant personality disorder, and pathological bias, which was considered for admission in the 2013 DSM V under a rubric that would have included racism, sexism, and heterosexism. Although pathological bias was not included in the DSM V, there is an entire chapter devoted to its assessment in the 2012 Oxford Handbook of Personality Disorders…

Affect and the Sociology of Race: A Program for Critical Inquiry

(now available online at Ethnicities)


Theorizing the centrality of race remains a key issue within the social sciences. However, an examination of four programs that dominate critical inquiry, particularly in the US context – Racial Formation Theory; Systemic Racism; Color-Blind Racism; and Critical Race Theory – reveal two key problems: a reductivist account of the role of culture in the production of race and racism and the essentializing of the political identity of racial Others. This article, then, considers a different paradigm for the study of race – an affective program. Two components of an affective program identified in this article are: (a) a more dynamic account of culture, opening up the realm of the discursive to more than just signification and representation, but also expression; and (b) locating the possibilities of racial politics as matters of racialized and anti-racist practices rather than matters of racial identity.

Oh You’re Racist? I’ve Got a Cure for That!

(with Dr. David Brunsma)


It has recently been discovered that the beta blocker drug, propranolol, can potentially reduce implicit racial bias among its users (Terbeck et al. 2012). By acting upon the affective conditions associated with implicit racial bias functioning at the non-conscious and pre-conscious levels (Phelps et al. 2000; Lieberman et al. 2005), researchers have expressed excitement about the potential of propranolol and similar drugs to decrease implicit racial attitudes, and, thus, potentially decrease racism. This study and others like it not only provide indications of an affective component to modern-day racism, but, more importantly, an epistemological shift in the meaning of racism within academia from a social and cultural problem to a medical problem. In this article, we examine this shift in academic discourse towards a pathologization of racism and the implications of this on the sociological study of race and racism.

Click here to access the article