Tyler Leeds / Sociologist

I am a sociology PhD candidate at UC Berkeley studying digital and legacy media, right-wing 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 and racism. 

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

Dissertation Project

My dissertation answers three questions about the 1619 Project. First, I employ Bourdieu's theorization of cultural production to understand how such a convention-defying work could be published by the New York Times. Second, I think with Hall's analysis of Thatcherism to parse the mechanisms employed by right-wing media to instigate a moral panic centered on the 1619 Project, a panic that evolved into the broader conservative denunciation of "critical race theory." Finally, to understand the 1619 Project as a work of public sociology, I stage a dialogue between its arguments and Du Bois, a conversation that clarifies how both participants theorize racism's role in US history. Overall, my dissertation illuminates how debates about race are shaped by the norms and technologies of the media, strategies employed by political actors, and the content of public ideas.

An article based on my research into the first question was published by Social Problems in 2023. That piece employs historical methods to explain how digital, financial, and political circumstances converged to enable the New York Times to dominate the journalistic field writ large. As I argue, this dominance positioned the paper to reinvent journalistic norms without censure—a clear example of which is the 1619 Project. A second paper, forthcoming at Social Problems, builds on Hall's co-authored work Policing the Crisis to analyze 567 cable news segments to identify the strategies Fox News employed to help spark the 1619 moral panic. A third paper, forthcoming at the Journal of Right-Wing Studies, builds on my use of Hall to systematize his political sociology into a heuristic for orienting right-wing studies.

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. To understand this mix of anti-government fervor and civic engagement, I explain how background assumptions of capacity and morality shape their imagination of the state. I systematized these assumptions into what I term their “state schema,” which differentiates 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 builds 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