Peer-Reviewed Publications

Gong, Neil. 2018. "Seeing Like a State Athletic Commission: Multi-Case Ethnography and the Making of 'Underground' Combat Sports"

Abstract: How can ethnographers access and assess macro-sociological influences on everyday life? This article extends Burawoy’s multi-case solution, which illuminates structural forces through case comparison, by using then critiquing it. I compare non-sanctioned fight events in two US states and ask why one organizes combat with self-regulation while the other utilizes a rationalized rule set, initially theorizing state regulation as the driver of contrasting niche markets. Yet to solve the first puzzle I must address another: why do organizers talk about avoiding governmental intervention when neither fears investigation? Drawing on ethnomethodology, I show how ‘the state’ becomes a resource for organizational boundary work. My contribution to micro-macro analysis is to reconcile the two frames: actual structural pressures disclosed by multi-case logic and the false discourse of ‘the state’ observed in interaction. Eschewing polemics over ‘relational’ versus ‘comparative’ approaches, I demonstrate the necessity of pluralism to see ‘the macro’ in ethnography.


Gong, Neil. 2017. "That Proves You Mad, Because You Know It Not': Impaired Insight and the Dilemma of Governing Psychiatric Patients as Legal Subjects." Theory and Society volume 46, issue 3 pp 201-228

Abstract: This article investigates “impaired insight,” a controversial psychiatric category describing a mad person unable to know his or her madness. Like “moral insanity” and other concepts before it, impaired insight offers a way to link the disparate logics of human responsibility in psychiatry and the law. I attribute its development to changes wrought by deinstitutionalization, the rise of antipsychotic medication, and patient incarceration in penal settings. In a system that aims to govern psychiatric patients through their freedom, the logic of impaired insight introduces a wrinkle: can a person make an informed choice to refuse treatment if madness itself impairs awareness of illness? Drawing on tools from the sociology of science, I trace the process by which researchers recast psychodynamic “denial” as a neurological and therefore non-volitional “impairment” in the 1990s. I then show how social movement actors mobilized the materialized form in the legal and policy fields in the 2000s, bringing insight science to bear upon the very questions of custodial management and patient rights that gave birth to it. At stake is this dilemma: how can societies that simultaneously privilege individual responsibility and somatic accounts of behavior govern those at the border of legal capacity, and with what justification?

Gong, Neil. 2015. "How to Fight Without Rules: On Civilized Violence in 'De-Civilized' Spaces." Social Problems volume 62, issue 4 pp 605-622

       * Winner of the 2016 ASA Body and Embodiment Section Graduate Student Paper Award
       * Coverage in The Society Pages and Chinese Martial Arts Studies

Abstract: Sociologists have long been concerned with the extent to which “civilizing processes” lead to the increasing salience of rationalized behavioral guidelines and corresponding internal controls, especially in social situations characterized by violence. Following Norbert Elias’s identification of a civilizing process in combat sports, sociologists have debated, though not empirically established, whether emerging “no-holds-barred” fight practices indicate a rupture in the historical civilization of leisure time violence. Using a critical case study of a “no-rules” weapons fighting group, where participants espouse libertarian values and compete in preparation for hypothetical self-defense encounters, I ask how the boundary between violence and social regulation is negotiated in an arena that putatively aims to remove the latter. Drawing on more than three years of ethnographic fieldwork, I specify the mechanisms that moderate action: (1) the cultivation of a code of honor and linked dispositions to replace codified rules; (2) the interactional hesitance that arises when participants lack clear rules or norms to coordinate action; and (3) the importation of external rule sets, such as self-defense law, to simulate the “real” world. Contrary to surface readings of “no-rules” discourse, I conclude that the activity is deeply embedded in larger societal norms of order. Participants’ ethos of honorable self-governance, “thresholds of repugnance” when exposed to serious injury, and aim of transforming emotive, violent reaction into reflective, instrumental action all indicate that the ostensibly unrestrained violence is, in Elias’s technical sense, precisely civilized.