2024 Plenary Speakers

"Reducing the Joy Deficit in Sociology: Why You Should Care about Transgender Joy" 

Friday, April 5  |  1:00 PM - 2:30 PM

The stories typically told about members of marginalized groups by the mainstream media, academics, and activists are those of suffering, discrimination, and violence. These stories are seen as helping marginalized people by signal boosting experiences of inequality and garnering sympathy for marginalized groups. However, rather than helping, highlighting negative aspects causes harm when that becomes the only way we understand those groups. In this talk, we explore the tendency within sociology to concentrate solely on oppression and inequalities. We argue that these important topics should be balanced with attention to positive aspects of social life, including joy. Although attention to joy, pleasure, and happiness may seem frivolous to some, particularly when society faces so many problems, we argue that the failure to focus on these aspects of social life is, itself, a problem. If scholars do not attend to joy, they cannot contribute to knowledge about how to foster it. This is perilous even for sociologists only interested in problems, as joy can help combat issues such as stigma, negative self-esteem, and violence. We illustrate this argument with findings from 40 interviews with transgender people who were asked what they found joyous about being trans. Our findings show how studying trans joy can help scholars, trans people, and the public understand the full complexity of trans people’s lived experiences, including all the wonderful things about being transgender. Those understandings can then foster positive social change by nurturing hope and joy and reducing discrimination and violence.


Laurel Westbrook is a Professor of Sociology at Grand Valley State University. They are the author of Unlivable Lives: Violence and Identity in Transgender Activism (University of California Press, 2021), and co-editor of Introducing the New Sexuality Studies: Original Essays (Routledge, 2022). Their scholarship has also been published in Social Problems, Gender & Society, and Sexualities, among other journals, and has been recognized with multiple awards from the American Sociological Association and the Society for the Study of Social Problems. They are co-founder and former co-chair of Sociologists for Trans Justice.  

stef shuster is an associate professor in Lyman Briggs College and the department of Sociology at Michigan State University. Their current research in gender, medicine, and feminist science and technology studies considers how evidence is constructed, mobilized, and weaponized, which is the subject of their book, Trans Medicine: The Emergence and Practice of Treating Gender (NYU Press, 2021).


"The Potential of a Sociology of Joy: Studying the "Something Else" of Life "

Saturday, April 6  |  1:00 PM - 2:30 PM

Antar A. Tichavakunda is Assistant Professor of Education at the University of California Santa Barbara. Born and raised in Washington, DC, Tichavakunda is a product of DC Public Schools. Tichavakunda uses qualitative inquiry and critical theories to study race and the sociology of education. His first book, Black Campus Life: The Worlds Black Students Make at a Historically White Institution, is published with SUNY Press. Tichavakunda enjoys watching anime, eating soul food (especially savory grits), and writing in cafes.  



"Defending Grief, Protecting Joy: Strategies, Cautionary Tales, and Hope" 

Thursday, April 4  |  4:30 PM - 6:00 PM

Nancy Berns, Ph.D. is the author of Closure: The Rush to End Grief and What It Costs Us, and professor of sociology at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, where she teaches classes on grief, death, emotions, effective listening, violence, and justice. She is also author of Framing the Victim: Domestic Violence, Media and Social Problems (Aldine de Gruyter 2004). Her current research explores how people live with grief and joy after loss. Nancy gives talks for various community groups, including schools/colleges, businesses, counselors, pastors, bereavement support groups, and hospice volunteers and staff. Her work attracts a national and international audience through her TEDx talk (Beyond Closure), blog, and interviews such as those with The Boston GlobeThe GuardianThe L.A. TimesU.S. News & World ReportCBS NewsReal SimpleWomen’s WorldThe Athletic and Prevention. For more information, see her website: www.nancyberns.com.