Interview with Dr. Bernadette Nadya Jaworsky, Department of Sociology

By Inga Kakulia

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Bernadette Nadya Jaworsky’s path to studying and then teaching sociology started when she was 40 years old. Nadya went back to school for her Bachelor’s thinking she would end up being a feminist-Marxist economist, but soon realized that it wasn’t the right fit. It would be a course about social inequality that would first grab her attention and direct her towards Sociology and eventually towards Cultural Sociology. 

Jaworsky got her Ph.D. in Cultural Sociology from Yale University, inspired by the works of Jeffrey Alexander, Professor of Sociology at Yale University, one of the world’s leading social theorists and a founding figure in the school of Cultural Sociology. Jeffrey Alexander would later become her supervisor for the Ph.D.

“I was looking at the website of the school that I eventually went to; I went to Yale and I was looking at American studies, and somehow I found the link to the Center for Cultural Sociology, in the sociology department. That’s where I encountered the work of Jeffrey Alexander and other cultural sociologists. I read it and it just made sense to me right away; I had a strong intellectual compatibility right away.”

Now, Professor Jaworsky teaches Cultural Sociology at Masaryk University, a field she considers to be as relevant as ever.  

“Sociology, and especially Cultural Sociology, is about the patterns of behavior of groups… With everything, the change in politics, with Covid-19, with climate change - all these major issues, it’s a really good idea to look at them sociologically."

According to Professor Jaworsky, Sociology can play an important role in understanding the impact and the aftereffects of the Covid-19 pandemic on our communities, but for now, what we can say for sure is that the pandemic allowed us to look at the best and the worst in people.

“I asked my classes this semester for two or three words that described the last 18 months and a lot of people said, “tiring,” or “lonely,” and some said “exciting,” which I couldn’t believe and even “enlightening.” So I think you have people who were alone in lockdown and suffered tremendous loneliness and depression, and that is something that needs to be studied… And some people used it as an opportunity to write, to create or to do research, or do their art, but it seems more people were negatively affected than positively. But I hardly think anyone was neutral. And to me, sociology can help us untangle all these effects.”

Jaworsky was and still is personally invested in better understanding the many complications and challenges that came with the pandemic, including conspiracy theories regarding the origin of Covid-19 virus and the hesitancy regarding the vaccines.

“I personally took interest in Covid-19 conspiracy theories, and I did a small research project. I wrote a paper - “Everything’s going according to Plan(demic): a cultural sociological approach to conspiracy theorizing,” about the sociology of conspiracy theories and how they are performed and what kind of meaning they have. I looked at the case study of a viral movie that came out - called “Plandemic. This went viral very quickly and then got removed from Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and everything. And I find this story very compelling because I see a lot of social media and otherwise in my personal connections, a lot of hesitancy around Covid, a lot of questions “

As we try to make sense of the changing policies and what these changes mean for our daily lives, Cultural Sociology can help us understand the meanings behind our actions and attitudes and how they relate to our culture. 

“In Cultural Sociology, we see that every aspect of social life has meaning. No matter how rational you think you are being, and how deliberative and how instrumental or strategic someone is, there is always meaning involved and cultural sociology is the study of meaning-making processes. And every aspect of social life, even the economy, is not strictly rational, or strategic; it has meaning. Think about money and the meaning of money. If you give a gift to someone and you give a gift of money, in some societies it’s totally insulting because you didn’t spend time to think of a good gift, and in other situations, it might be acceptable because the person could really use the money. But it all has meaning.”

For Nadya Jaworsky, even after many years of working in the field and doing research, the most interesting and intriguing thing about cultural sociology is that even if people don’t see it that way, everything has meaning. 

“When people think of culture, they think of national culture or they think of fine arts and mass culture like news or television or things like that, but culture is everywhere. Culture is part of every single thing we do or think about. And for Sociology, it’s about making the familiar strange. Well, some people say “Well, that’s obvious” but now we know how it’s obvious, we know how many people feel a certain way about something, or sometimes there are surprises and those are very very exciting.“

When asked about the understudied topic in the field, Nadya brings up popular culture. 

“I used to teach a class on pop culture at both Master and Bachelor levels and I think especially after a lockdown in covid time people watching so much television and so many movies and listening to the news and reading books, that popular culture is a field that is still not taken very seriously. I mean it’s kind of like “You study TV, haha” - but I think it is really really important. You can tell a lot of society through what they are watching on TV and what they think of it. “

During her time teaching at Masaryk University, she has seen a fair share of heated discussions in her classes about what it means to be a sociologist, whether or not there is such a thing as being a neutral observer, or what’s the purpose of sociology, but Jaworsky says that her favorite course to teach is Writing Sociology. 

“Writing Sociology is a course I teach to Master’s and Ph.D. students, and most recently also for Bachelor’s students as a separate class. I just love it because I see such a huge change and improvement, and the students really like it and I’m not just trying to say that to brag... but they really like this course. It’s because they experience transformation, of the kind I don’t see in any other class. People come to me starved for writing skills and then they change and develop in a semester in a really profound way.”

And when it comes to how Nadya Jaworsky would describe the program in three words, she says it’s Collegial, Transformative, and Compelling.

As a researcher, Nadya Jaworsky dedicates a lot of her time to the topic of immigration, with her most recent work focusing on public attitudes towards immigration in the Czech Republic. And as to be expected - the results are much more complex than “in favor” or “against” immigration. 

Professor Jaworsky also recalls doing research on immigration in the U.S where she studied immigration rights groups and immigration control groups. And to her surprise, she found that these groups all called for the same kind of meanings, but they saw them differently in regard to immigrants. 

Last year, she also began her research on the Covid-19 pandemic, a comparison of narratives from China and the United States, which she wrote with a Chinese colleague. Apart from that, her most recent work also includes a theoretical article on symbolic boundaries. 

“I think everything is about boundaries, the distinctions the people make about Us and Them, or between things, but mostly between people, are so important. So that’s the lens, the theoretical lens that we use in the migration attitudes project which has 3 more articles that are currently under review and we are also writing a book.“  

You can find all of Nadya Jaworsky’s latest publications down below.

The Courage for Civil Repair: Narrating the Righteous in International Migration, edited by Carlo Tognato, Bernadette Nadya Jaworsky and Jeffrey C. Alexander.

Historicizing Roma in Central Europe: Between Critical Whiteness and Epistemic Injustice (Victoria Shmidt and Bernadette Nadya Jaworsky, Routledge 2021).

Rétiová, A, Rapoš Božič, I, Klvaňová, R. & Jaworsky, B.N. 2021. “Shifting categories, changing attitudes: A boundary work approach in the study of attitudes toward migrants,” Sociology Compass. Volume15, Issue 3.

Jaworsky, Bernadette Nadya and Jan Krotký. 2021. "‘A Brother Is More Than a Neighbour’: Symbolic Boundary Work in Czech Pro-Migration Discourse." European Journal of Cultural and Political Sociology 8(3):329-54

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