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


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)

Origins: From ‘Intercultural Education’ to ‘Diversity and Inclusion’

One of my current research projects investigates competing meanings of diversity and inclusion within contemporary institutions of higher education. One component of this project is a historical examination of the discursive formation of ‘diversity and inclusion’. In their widely-cited article in the American Sociological Review, “Diversity in Everyday Discourse: The cultural ambiguities and consequences of happy talk,” sociologists Joyce Bell and Douglass Hartmann make two interesting observations that peaked my initial interest in the historical questions for this project. First, they claim that, to date, no scholar has produced an exhaustive account of when diversity first emerged in American discourse. Second, they claim that diversity discourse may be the first racial project of the 21st century (2007: 910).

Let me make it clear here, I think the world of Bell and Hartmann’s research, and the Mosaic Project more generally. However, when reading that article I was skeptical of both of those terms. In some of my earlier work, I’ve argued for an approach to social and cultural history that moves away from linear progression from one epoch or episode to the next. Instead, I argue that social and cultural history often unfolds through what Walter Mignolo (1995) describes as a clustering process, where clusters of social history overlap with one another, shaping emergent clusters, and our memories of prior ones. What I’ve found in many of the sociological writings on diversity/inclusion in higher education is this taken-for-granted assumption that diversity discourse emerged from both civil rights legislation and post-civil rights discourse in the 1960s and 1970s as more colleges and universities established cultural centers, academic programs, and student organizations centered on celebrating the achievements of historically marginalized populations. I just wasn’t convinced this was the beginning of modern day efforts to achieve ‘diversity and inclusion’.

I began by trying to move backwards from some of the values held by advocates of the contemporary ‘diversity and inclusion’ initiatives in higher education, and trying to identify any historical overlaps. I came across a brilliant, but largely neglected, piece of scholarship by the historian Nicholas Montalto entitled, A History of the Intercultural Educational Movement, 1924-1941 (New York: Garland, 1982). Though Montalto does not connect the dots between the intercultural education movement of the interwar period, and the movement toward diversity and inclusion within higher education in the post-civil rights era. However, in reading through his work, and the work of a few others, I’ve come to recognize a major ‘clustering’ between the inter-war period and the post-civil rights period concerning the discursive elements of intercultural education and diversity/inclusion. My goal for several upcoming posts in this blog is to flesh out some of these findings as I prepare the historical write-up of my research project.


Below are just some small pieces of the larger narrative I’m writing on the relationship between contemporary discourses of diversity and the discourse of the intercultural education movement from the inter-war period. I welcome feedback!

“A part of the emphasis on the model of diversity that posits diversity as a celebration of multiple cultures arose from the coopting of psychological theories of identity and self-esteem in the early 20th century. At the time, it was widely believed that an individual’s self esteem was dependent upon the status of their membership group. Rejection of that group, then, was believed to be the cause of self-hatred. Social workers employing these psychological frameworks began to argue that the way to solve the ‘second generation problem was to raise the status of the immigrant group through public recognition and praise of immigrant cultures for their unique contributions…

The Commission on First Generation Americans, established in 1925 to study the second-generation problem, issued its final report in 1930. In it, the authors recommended the formation of clubs along nationality lines for second generation persons “wherever there is lack of security, manifested either by intense nationality concern in the first generation or by blatant, extreme, and noisy disregard for nationality in the second generation…

Much of the diversity educational framework that is employed today harkens back to the early multicultural and intercultural education programs advocated by Rachel Davis DuBois in the 1920s and 1930s. Partnering with major teacher-training colleges and universities, the American Association of University Women, the New Jersey Race Relations Survey Committee, and the National Conference of Christians and Jews, DuBois designed assemblies and courses marked by a strong international focus, immediate antecedents in the pacifist movement, and a strong concern to change the attitudes of the majority rather than alter the self-concept of racial and ethnic minorities…

By the mid 1930s, national interest in ethnic diversity was intensive and widespread. The new commissioner of Indian Affairs, John Collier, was carrying out plans to revitalize tribal arts, language, and culture through reservation schools. In Pittsburgh, one of the first efforts in higher education to incorporate diversity education was taking place at the University of Pittsburgh. There, seventeen Nationality Rooms in the University’s ‘Cathedral of Learning’ had opened, with the intention to use these spaces as classrooms where regular use would produce a “building up [of] respect for the historic traditions” of the major groups residing in the city. In 1935, spurred by its imminent merger with the Service Bureau, the widely-reputable Progressive Education Association passed a resolution for intercultural education stating, “there is no more important or appropriate task for this association…not only for the education of our thirty million new Americans and other minority groups, but also for the enlightenment of the children of the old Americans whose ignorance of other cultures is an equally great menace to our community life.”In December of that same year, the PEA Board of Directors voted to establish a “Committee on Intercultural Education” – marking the first time the term ‘intercultural education’ entered the education profession’s lexicon…

In the late 1930s through the early 1940s, the American Jewish Committee underwent a major transformation in how they thought about combatting anti-Semitism through educational programming. This transformation was due, in large part, to a growing body of evidence in the social sciences that suggested spikes in anti-Semitism were closely correlated with economic downturns and increases in anti-democratic behaviors. Increasingly, it became less popular to back programming centered on educating the general public on Jewish culture and history. Instead, it was argued by members of the AJC that anti-Semitism could only be extinguished by championing democracy more generally. The task of intercultural education, for the AJC, became one where open-mindedness, critical thinking, respect for the individual, and equality of opportunity were to be encouraged. Their commissioning of the now famous Studies in Prejudice series, of which the widely-read and cited The Authoritarian Personality was the first volume, was the apex of their new approach to “sterilizing the soil” from which anti-Semitism and group prejudice grew…”




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.

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

On Non-Representational Theory and Inquiry

[Introduction to From Non-Representational Theory to Non-Representational Analysis, currently under review]

Epistemology: A theory of knowledge
Method: A technique for gathering evidence.
Methodology: A theory and analysis of how research does or should proceed.1

The ‘cultural turn,’ brought on in part through the identity-politics movements of the 1960s and scholars’ renewed interest in meaning and culture rather than political and economic institutions, had an enormous impact on how social scientists have approached the empirical worlds they study. The shift toward interpretivism and the focus on how social actors make meaning out of their everyday life became the basis for newly emergent approaches to studying nebulous concepts as ‘culture’ and ‘social’.2 A shift occurred in qualitative methodology from conceptualizing the object of study as a ‘there’ to which the researcher traveled in order to understand meaning, to a more reflective lens in which ‘there’ became a matter of critical interrogation.3

Currently we are witnessing yet another shift in qualitative methodology, brought on in part through the ‘affective turn’, and in response to the crisis of representation which plagued cultural studies and the social sciences in the latter decades of the 20th century.4 This shift, and the reorienting of empirical investigation toward the capacity of the body to affect and be affected by others, constitutes a new methodology for generating a literal and metaphorical body of knowledge. If one of the central questions coming out of the cultural turn was one of representation, or how to represent the various identities pushing for political and cultural recognition, then the new question is how to ‘more-than-represent’.5

In partial response to the deadening effect of cultural studies identified by cultural and human geographers, as well as the assertion that a critical scholarship should do more than just critique, but should fundamentally illuminate the process of emergence, Non-Representational Theory (NRT) was seen as reconnecting social inquiry back with actual materiality as it unfolds.6 The objective of NRT is to shift investigative focus away from analysis which divides the world into ‘reality’ and ‘reality-making, and instead emphasize the transient, immanent qualities of everyday life which, in their ongoing emergence, constitute not just life as we know it but also life as it could be.7 One effect of this movement is that analytic interest is turned toward practice as it is embodied, or those ways in which the body comes to know and generate knowledge about itself and others through movement between and among other bodies. The study of the body is not simply an investigation of how the body came to be what it is – it is an investigation of what the body is capable of producing within a given socio-cultural-political context.

No longer is social-science epistemology a question of sensory observation or interpretative practice; it is now also a matter of immanence and embodiment.8 The emergent field of Critical Affect Studies (CAS), deeply influential to at least a portion of NRT scholars, certainly borrows from the biological sciences, but does so in a manner that refuses to freeze the body as a fixed entity.9 Rather, biology becomes potentiality, or in-excess, as the body is articulated as always extending itself through practices of becoming. CAS to date does not shun discursive methods of critical praxis.10 Rather, CAS brackets the question of what does affect mean in favor of the question, what is affect doing? However, to date CAS finds itself in the somewhat indefensible position of arguing for an analytic attention to immanence and embodiment in social and cultural life, but yet left with methodologies which, rather than describe movement in the moment, instead inscribe those very movements as moments. This continues to be the rub of cultural analysis: we seek to capture the liveliness of culture through methods which compromise the very things which make culture an ongoing process.

Traditional qualitative techniques – here I’m thinking of ethnography and the qualitative interview – encounter two major methodological problems. First, they reify a disembodied form of knowledge production because they reject the occurrences on and between bodies in favor of indexing bodily arrangements for cognitive forms of academic mapping; and second, they neglect the most fundamental effect of affect’s movements: these movements produce. They produce the social, the cultural, and even subjectivity in their movement, not in their definitions.11 Thus it is a shift in methodological focus that I advocate here, from concerning ourselves with operational definitions of what constitutes a body of knowledge, to a concern for actual operations.

Central to the project of both NRT and CAS is how the turn toward affect allows for methodology to open itself up to investigations of immanence and potentiality.12 By blurring temporal distinctions between past, present, and future through embodied habits and relationalities, the analyst can participate in empirical speculation without fear of abandoning a pursuit of valued knowledge.13 The body is no longer a fixed entity, and more than simply a discursive representation. The body is a biological and cultural potential. It is the literal and figurative embodiment of virtuality: a product of fluid, continuous processes from which the social and cultural is formed.14 It is a linkage between past-present-future that is continuous and non-linear in its movement between those spaces. Potentiality, then, is the new empirical material toward which critical studies should turn.

In what follows, I first briefly sketch the emergent field of CAS, which has centered not only the body as an epistemological site of inquiry, but also specifically embodied practices.15 The attention toward embodied practices marks the first transition toward a methodology in which the purpose is to understand what those practices produce both in the moment in which they occur, as well as over time. Next, I turn toward my own ethnographic research on a drag revue to demonstrate how employing a non-representational analysis allows for the researcher to emphasize how bodies become affectually charged within particular cultural spaces, and how social actors respond to competing intensities of affects as they occur. Finally, I demonstrate how NRT provides a blueprint for a new epistemology both independent of and also emergent from its positivist and interpretivist predecessors.16

In doing so, I demonstrate the practical usage of NRT in ethnographic fieldwork, something that its proponents have failed to completely accomplish.17 To date, investigations of affect in critical theory by and large have been discursive analyses of text, reifying the ‘deadening effect’ of cultural studies against which NRT proponents rage.18 Focusing on the embodied practices and their immanent potential, this article accomplishes what those before it have failed to do: to generate a critical methodology of affect that attends to the practices of the body as the focus of social scientific investigation.19

1This is a paraphrasing of the concise differentiation found in Sandra Harding’s, “Is There a Feminist Method”, in Sandra Harding (1987). Feminism and Methodology: Social Science Issues. Indiana University Press, p.3.

2Chris Roject and Bryan Turner, 2000. “Decorative Sociology: Toward a critique of the Cultural Turn”, in The Sociological Review, 48(4), 629-648.

3Jaber Gubrium and James Holstein, 1997. The New Language of Qualitative Method. Oxford University Press.

4Patricia Clough, ed. 2007. The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social. Duke University Press.

5For a debate about the use of ‘more than representational’ or ‘non-representational’ to describe this new branch of theorizing, see Hayden Lorimer, 2005. “Cultural Geography: The Busyness of Being ‘More-Than Representational’,” Progress in Human Geography, 29(1), 83-94.

6Hayden Lorimer, 2005. “Cultural Geography: The Busyness of Being ‘More-Than Representational’,” Progress in Human Geography, 29(1), 83-94; also Ben Anderson and Paul Harrison, editors, 2010. Taking-Place: Non-Representational Theories and Geography, Farnham, UK: Ashgate.

7Thrift, 2008. Also Anderson and Harrison, 2010.

8Gerda Roelvink, 2009. “Collective Action and the Politics of Affect.” Emotion, Space, and Society, 3(2), 111-118. See also Ben Anderson, 2006.

9For the use of Critical Affect Studies to define a small, but influential, body of scholarship, see Jenny Edbauer Rice, 2008. “The New ‘New’: Making a case for critical affect studies.” Quarterly Journal of Speech, 94(2), 200-212. For examples of CAS borrowing both concepts and case studies from the biological sciences, see Teresa Brennan, 2004. The Transmission of Affect. Cornell University Press; also see Brian Massumi, 2002. Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation, Duke University Press. Consequently, it should be noted that some very heavy-handed critiques have been laid upon these works for the selective borrowing of particular experimental designs that, to date, have been shown to be quite problematic. For examples of these critiques, see Constantina Papoulias and Felicity Callard, 2010. “Biology’s Gift: Interrogating the turn to affect.” Body and Society, 16(1), 29-56. Also see Ruth Leys, 2011. “The Turn to Affect: A Critique.” Critical Inquiry, 37(3), 434-472.

10For examples of discursive analyses of affect, see Ann Cvetkovich, 1992. Mixed Feelings: Feminism, Mass Culture, and Victorian Sensationalism, Rutgers University Press; and Eve Sedgewick, 2002. Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity, Duke University Press.

11Bruno Latour, 2004. “How to Talk About the Body? The normative dimensions of science studies.” Body and Society, 10(2/3), 205-230. Also see Lisa Blackman, 2008. “Affect, Relationality, and the Problem of Personality.” Theory, Culture, and Society, 25(1), 27-51.

12Jenny Edbauer Rice, 2008.

13See Ben Anderson, 2006.

14Giles Deleuze, 1994. Difference and Repetition, London, UK: Athlone; also see Ian Tucker, 2011. “Sense and the Limits of Knowledge: Bodily connections in the work of Serres.” Theory, Culture, and Society, 28(1), 149-160.

15For instance, see Nigel Thrift, 2008. Non-Representational Theory: Sapce, Politics, Affect, Routledge.

16For a similar attempt, though outside of non-representational theory, see Patricia Clough, 2009. “The New Empiricism: Affect and the Sociological Method.” European Journal of Social Theory, 12(1), 43-61.

17Though perhaps its greatest theoretical contributor to date, Nigel Thrift’s outline of NRT in both Non-Representational Theory and “Intensities of Feeling: Towards a Spatial Politics of Affect” (2004: Geografsika Annaler, 86B, 57-58) does not contain even a generic script for how NRT should proceed in fieldwork. Similarly, there are a number of unique and important empirial and theoretical contributions in the edited volume by Ben Anderson and Paul Harrison, Taking-Place. Yet, the contributors to this volume, including the editors, offer us the end-goal of NRT without the map of how they arrived there.

18See Nigel Thrift and John-David Dewsbury, 2000. “Dead Geographies – and How to Make Them Live.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 18(4), 411-432. It should also be noted that Lawrence Grossberg has spent the past three decades, with some success, attempting to move cultural studies in the direction that Thrift and Dewsbury argue it must proceed.

19The avoidance of a definitional debate deserves clarification. The debate about what affect is certainly has merit – any debate over a concept in the social sciences has the effect of demonstrating its utility or its ineffectivity. However, this debate has been hashed out several times over, in various outlets, conferences, and seminars. Further, asking what affect is reifies that it is something concrete, fixed, and able to be represented; and ignores the more urgent question, of what is affect doing.