Tyler Leeds / Sociologist

I am a sociology PhD candidate at UC Berkeley studying media, politics, and theory. My mixed-methods dissertation draws on the thought of Stuart Hall, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Pierre Bourdieu to understand the controversy stirred by the 1619 Project, an effort by The New York Times to reframe American history around slavery. 

I have published research in Social Problems, Qualitative Sociology, and Sociological Theory. My scholarship is complemented by a commitment to teaching, mentoring, and critically engaging curriculum practices.

Dissertation Project

My dissertation begins by asking how a newspaper known for colorblind liberalism came to publish an effort to center slavery in the national narrative. Drawing on Bourdieusian field theory—as well as critics of this approach—I find a surprising answer in the paper’s adaptation to an advertising economy dominated by social media platforms. Analyzing SEC filings, leaked internal reports, software developer blogs, and more, I piece together the history of the paper’s digital transformation. Over this period, the Times’ commercial strategy transitioned from relying on advertising revenue to digital subscriptions, a model that enabled and rewarded greater responsiveness to its readers’ politics. While the strategy behind ads encouraged the paper to avoid controversy, digital subscriptions required it to cultivate reader investment, a process facilitated by mining information on reader behavior. In an article published by Social Problems, I expand this story to explain how technological, financial, and political circumstances converged to enable the paper to dominate the journalistic field writ large, positioning it to reinvent journalistic norms without censure—a clear example of which is the 1619 Project.

After establishing the 1619 Project’s backstory, my dissertation turns to the moral panic that made it the target of legislative bans and a presidential commission. Here I engage Stuart Hall to understand how right-wing media, think tanks, and politicians came to articulate a vision of the Project that cast it as an effort at classroom indoctrination. In this view, the Project both exaggerated the relevance of race and promoted an anti-white world view. Through this seemingly contradictory framing, Fox News, the Trump Administration, and other actors positioned the Project to serve both colorblind racism and white Christian nationalism, despite the tension between these ideologies.

My dissertation ends by looking inside the Project, which has had a massive reach not only as a work of journalism but as a television series, podcast, and best-selling book. To frame the Project as a work of social theory, I compare it with the thought of Du Bois, who was planning his own commemoration of the year 1619 until race riots derailed his efforts. Looking across Du Bois’s body of work, I elucidate a theorization of racism from his interrogation of American historiography and his forward-looking political projects. I apply the same method to the 1619 Project, building a theory of racism from its movement between history and politics. Doing so reveals the Project to promote a psychological view of racism. In this model, anti-Blackness is maintained through an on-going project of dehumanization that seeks to justify past racist transgressions. While Du Bois’s early work is compatible with this view, his later thought embraced a materialist theorization that saw racism as a tool of American capitalism and imperialism.

Ethnography of Right-Wing Activism

Before the pandemic kept me out of the field, I conducted an ethnography of right-wing activists in rural Northern California, an effort I published in Qualitative Sociology in 2020. As the activists I studied agitated for a rural-majority 51st state, they were simultaneously deep into conspiracy theories—from Sandy Hook to ‘chem trails’—which they pinned on bureaucrats in Washington and Sacramento. At the same time, they showed up and stayed late at municipal meetings, offering thoughtful engagement with the minutia of small-town governance. As a result, my fieldwork was marked by contrasts—conversations ranged from fringe blogs promoting Christian nationalism to debates about the finer points of septic regulations. I sought to understand this mix of anti-government fervor and civic engagement by explaining how background assumptions of capacity and morality shaped their imagination of the state. I systematized these assumptions into what I termed their “state schema,” which differentiated federal, state, and local agencies, as well as their imagined 51st state, what they called the State of Jefferson.  

Rethinking Bourdieu with Pain Science

My article in Sociological Theory draws on the biomedical pain science literature to extend and reformulate Bourdieu's central concept of habitus. I make the case that Bourdieusian theory must recognize that action springs from a "bio-habitus," which both enables and limits the process of socialization and habitual action Bourdieu theorizes. I illustrate my point by describing how the neurological effects of pain limit one's ability to respond to stimuli, thus interfering with habitus expression and revision. While this project stands apart from my main research agenda, it is rooted in my experience of a chronic pain condition.

Background and Contact

Prior to Berkeley, I worked at a daily newspaper in Oregon, where my reporting focused on political tensions in a former mill town experiencing rapid tourism-driven growth. I also covered the armed occupation of a wildlife refuge and debates over the implementation of marijuana legalization

Before becoming a journalist, I earned a bachelor's degree in sociology from the University of Chicago.

A work of public sociology drawn from my research and journalism career was published by the Berkeley Journal of Sociology in 2022


tyler_leeds [at] berkeley [dot] edu

art by Kate Oliver Irick