Sophie E. James is a Chicago-based political sociologist whose work focuses on anti-trafficking advocacy space—including how to deconstruct and challenge the racist and oppressive discourse in the field. She's also the host of Seek-favorite podcast Unpaid Emotional Labor, where she talks about identities, sociopolitics, and reality TV. We had a chance to chat with Sophie about her research, as well as proactive allyship, dismantling the status quo, and the sociopolitics of the Bachelor franchise. Read on for the full interview—and to see how Sophie styles some recent Seek capsules.
1. So you’re a political sociologist, you work in anti-trafficking advocacy, and you host a podcast on sociopolitics through the lens of pop culture, with a lot of Bachelor franchise content sprinkled in—how does all of this fit together? And when did you first realize that reality TV was ripe for sociopolitical analysis?
I’m not sure if it’s a matter of how they fit together as opposed to my making it so ha-ha. However, in the ways that we negotiate our identities in the sociopolitical daily, it’s not surprising that I can draw parallels on race, gendered tropes, and supremacy thinking from a low-brow reality show. The former two: pop culture and the Bachelor franchise are ultimately my palate cleansers from working in the niche space of anti-trafficking advocacy as a Political Scientist and Researcher. For it to be 2021 and witnessing the antiquated and racist narratives that stakeholders use to frame a complex issue created by capitalism and not lapses in morality-as they would have most believe, would drive anyone to consume mindless television. And therein lies the cyclical nature of it all: you can’t truly escape the manifestations of the structural inequalities that condition us all! So, I have always thought that Reality TV was ripe for sociopolitical analysis, but I just now expanded my bandwidth to dissect certain nuances this summer.
2. What first sparked your interest in sociology?
My interest in Sociology first sparked in 11th grade of high school. I had a phenomenal teacher, Mr. Campagne, and the way he presented highly polemic topics as cogent as he did, hooked me from day 1. I also realized that my internal dialogue from childhood and the way I made sense of the harsh realities of the world up until that point, fit into that school of thought, hence it would continue to shape my scholarship well into graduate studies.
3. You’ve done a lot of research on anti-trafficking advocacy, both as an academic and as a professional in the non-profit space, and a lot of your work challenges the dominant anti-trafficking discourse in addition to exposing misinformation and botched statistics. Can you tell us a bit about what kind of reforms you hope to see in the anti-trafficking advocacy space?
Reform would imply there is capacity for sound, evidence-based literature informing this space, therefore the impetus for reform must start with deconstructing and boldly challenging the dominant, racist discourse via funded capital so it can’t be dismissed as “identity politics” or “cute” (that patronizing comment directed at my thesis research by a renowned criminology professor out of Northeastern in 2019). The stakeholders, both federal and private, that are invested in the deregulated information that funds their voyeuristic and performative humanitarianism have a vested interest in silencing certain research projects and minoritized scholars in the field that are not perpetuating the “Taken” trope and proposing critical and nuanced lenses. Unless one’s politics and scholarship are centered in “dismantling the status quo” then this sector will stay in the state of stagnation currently plaguing it.
4. In your conversations and work around anti-trafficking, the issue of allyship often comes up, particularly the importance of “allyship as a verb,” which is such a great turn of phrase, because it really gets at why allyship often fails. Can you share a bit more on this definition of allyship?
To put it plainly, “allyship as a verb” means that allyship should be an active, constant, and tangential line of thought and practices as one goes about their day/life. Recognizing one’s proximity to privilege and supremacist thinking will inevitably lead you to the microsocial aspects of how you shape your identity, decisions, relationships etc. as fodder to sustain an oppressive and violent society. Learning correct pronouns, being mindful of micro/macro-aggressions, and understanding the difference between defunding and divesting from carceral institutions is truly the tip of the iceberg. The level of awareness needed to not consume problematic narratives takes a conscious and active effort. So, if you’re not playing the long game and don’t want to hire a therapist…I have some bad news for you lol
5. Is there a particular activist or academic who has been particularly inspirational to you?
Dr. Kimberle Crenshaw, who coined the term “intersectionality” back in 1989, is my biggest inspiration. The courage to provide such a nuanced challenge to the legal establishment and flip theory on its head-gives me the chills EVERY. TIME. Yes, folks have diluted and appropriated the term throughout the last 30 years and now we have clueless racists misinterpreting it even more just to find creative ways to promote “racism isn’t real” but that does not take away from the genius and applicability of her theory that has not gone through any (if at all) amendments or changes. Her advocacy for Black Femmes to this day should be lauded more than it has, and her work not only birthed my master’s thesis but will serve as the dominant theory for my doctoral dissertation that I will defend in ~4 years (start PhD program in Political Sociology Fall 2022).
6. What do you wear to feel the most free and confident?
Denim on Denim or as it’s widely known: Canadian Tuxedo. I always joke that I will be buried in that uniform! The ease, functionality, and minimalist-sexy nature of that look translates as the basis for my personal style. A tailored, double-breasted blazer, white tee and jean combo is a CLOSE second.
7. What’s the most recent book you’ve read and felt moved or inspired by?
Since getting my master’s degree, I have not been able to read for fun because grad school ruins that for you lol so I will list my two most influential reads.
Academic: Sex Slaves and Discourse Matters: The Construction of Trafficking (2010) by Jo Doezema.
Fiction: Passing (1928) by Nella Larsen.
8. What is the best advice you’ve received so far and who did it come from?
It wasn’t presented as advice at first because my therapist is tricky like that and great at her job. She posed a question ~2 years ago: “Why do you hate your story so much?” At first, I was offended because how dare she, right?! And I initially misinterpreted the question as “I need to see that my trauma happened for a reason” like other sentiments of toxic positivity I’ve heard throughout my life. When I explained my confusion and latent anger to her at my next session, she calmly clarified that she meant: your story happened and your refusal to acknowledge it birthed these harmful coping mechanisms and survival instincts that no longer serve you, while keeping you cut off from the very things you claim to want: intimacy, friendship, self-love, etc. so ‘hating your story’ prevents you from grieving and full self-acceptance. I see her once a week going on 3 years this upcoming January.
9. What advice would you give to someone who wants to pursue a degree or dive into academia but isn’t sure where to start?
Do not apply until you have some semblance of what your research question would be or the theoretical approach you’d want to flesh out. Master’s programs are not equipped or sustainable for helping students develop that regardless of what their websites and recruiters say. I experienced severe academic hazing and put off writing my thesis for two years because of that trauma and politicized structure of academia. Go in with as much self-awareness and trajectory for your scholarship so that you may utilize the academic resources to enhance what is already there and not leave your intellectual property vulnerable to Professors predatorily using your naivete to steal your work.
10. What are you seeking more of this year?
In 2022, I am seeking more “Authenticity” and pushing myself to be more vulnerable and transparent in whatever space I occupy.
11. And let’s end with a fun (though hard) one: Top three favorite TV shows?
My anxiety just spiked since it depends on my mood but:
Game of Thrones. All-time favorite.
Fleabag. Specifically Season 2. I watched it all the way through 3 times in 29 hours.
The Haunting of Hill House. Scared senseless but sobbing unconsolably by the finale, truly phenomenal show.
Follow Sophie on Instagram @sophie_e_james and her podcast @unpaidemotionallabor.
Sophie is wearing the Deva Shirt in naturally dyed black silk chiffon; the Katja Dress in hand block printed dahlia print; and the Artist Shirt in handloom woven micro houndstooth.