Monday, January 21, 2013

The Sociological Imagination

I'm wondering if you think those authors who do mention such things without tying them to the social structure that creates them know what they are doing?  Do they intentionally leave that out since the focus is on the behavior? I had a conversation earlier today about how social researchers don't care about motives behind why someone did something but instead their justification was that you can't "enter someone's head" I argued that motive is essential to know as well if we really are looking for progress. I guess what I'm asking is do you think those folks purposely avoid that being that they don't care what structure created it, but only the behavior?

I do not think that many sociologists are able to think at that level of abstraction.  They claim that they are including the social structure.  They assume that peer influences, socialization by others, and social constructions are all social level influences.  They are not.  They are intermediaries between the social structure and the individual.  But, they are not able to see the broader social forces that drive these intermediate influences.

For example, if we look at gendered behaviors such as in an article on body image and body mass index (BMI), we can see the problem.  The article argues that Black women tend to have a higher tolerance for higher BMI and are not as concerned with body image as White women.  Aside from the fact that it normalizes unhealthy, thin body image in White women, the article points to a "cultural legacy" as one of the reasons for the difference.  As Mills complains, this notion of "cultural legacy" is poorly developed and not integrated into the research itself.  It is an ad hoc explanation, hastily pasted to a poorly conceived abstract empiricist project.  But, to the researchers, it is the social factor that helps explain the difference in self perception.  A cultural legacy that included socialization and peer influences, like Black males' standards in body size, only looks at the individual level of analysis (also making it a perfect example of color-blind cultural racism).  But, as the article demonstrates, cultural racism is not really a concern for sociologists.  Researchers, reviewers and editors are perfectly willing and eager to print research with culturally racist findings.  They cannot see it as such because their level of analysis is so horrifically limited that they could not possibly publish any research on issues of gender or race because the level of analysis dictates a blame the victim conclusion.

The beliefs and attitudes of a group of people originate in the social constructions within that group of people.  Since the level of analysis is the interviewees own attitudes and understandings, the “problem” can only be understood as part of the interviewees’ own construction.  The “problem” is firmly rooted in the interviewee, and not the social structure acting on the subjects of the study.  The worst of this type of research turns labeling theory into an "identity" that needs to be reconstructed.  It is the felons that need to re-envision themselves, not the justice system that needs to change.  There is no way not to blame the victim with this kind of perspective, but this is where abstracted empiricism comes in.  Ad hoc theories and rationalizations are added at the end of the study to rationalize away their racist, sexist, classist conclusions.  They are not connected to the broader study and are simply philosophical statements unconnected to the study or rooted in empirical evidence.

These types of researchers fool themselves into thinking that because the behavior is held and transmitted through groups, it is a social structural influence.  It is not.  It is only the effect of a broader social structural influence.  Why do Black women and men possess this different cultural legacy?  Why specifically would larger body mass index be associated with Black women.  The authors’ excuse is "Perhaps the conception of a strong African American woman suggests a physically large body."  Ok, aside from being pure speculation, what social structural factors would lead Black women to this conception rather than others?  What historical factors can we find that would help us understand this issue?  Contemporary sociologists, for the large part, are not interested in these broader explanatory forces.  These factors are too removed from the individual's own experience to be conveniently documented through one-on-one interviews.  The problem with grounded method and the reliance on in-depth interviews is that the interviewees, Mills argues, many times do not know the social forces that are acting upon them.  Thus, if your head is always in an individual level of analysis, you cannot see the forest for the trees.

Now, that is not to argue that in-depth interviews and grounded method are inherently wrong, but they have become a problem much like grand theory and abstracted empiricism.  When a researcher does not properly situate their study in the broader social structure, it is loosed from its moorings and tells us little about the social world.  Patricia Hill Collins is a great example of how to tie the individual lived experience to the broader social structure.  Many others who use "intersectionalities" or the matrix of domination have so rinsed the concepts of their historical and structural footings that they become meaningless anecdotes.

Sociology, at its best, allows us to understand the trajectories in our society.  Like chemists who cannot know the behavior of individual atoms, sociologists are not necessarily concerned with the individual motivations or behaviors of individual people.  When speaking of motivations, we have to acknowledge that many times the individuals do not know what drives them.  Do working-class Tea Partiers knowingly accept their manipulation at the hands of the wealthy?  How do we understand gay Republicans?

I think your question about the motivation that someone holds is part of the duality of the sociological understanding.  There are broader social forces that give rise to certain behaviors and ideas.  These social forces may be interpreted or felt differently by different groups of people.  So, the economic insecurity and decline in living standards for the middle classes in the US has caused at least two very different reactions to the same social structural forces.  On the one hand, we have a number of folks who have identified capitalism, greed, corporations, etc. as the source of the problem.  Some are driven by an understanding of capitalism, while others have a sort of visceral antagonism to the unfairness of the global economy.  On the other hand, we have groups of people who have identified scapegoats for the declining standard of living.  These folks identify dead-beat dads, immigrants, pork-barrel spending, entitlements, terrorists, the UN, government, etc.  A sociological understanding of the situation allows us to see that the current social and economic conditions are giving rise to these views.  We may even be able to identify general social factors that would allow us to distinguish why certain people fall into one group rather than the other.

Your question gets at the second part of the issue.  Now that we know where these ideas came from, how do we understand the interpretations of those who hold these ideas so that we may move toward a constructive solution?  This, is, I think, the most significant failure of the left whether it be environmentalists or pro-worker activists, etc.  Some folks may understand the social structure, but they cannot understand why people would see the world differently than themselves.  Why are so many working-class individuals so pro-corporation and rich guy?  They do not necessarily verbalize it that way, but the policies they support end up being exactly that.  Well, that is the question of motivation.  We can still understand this motivation in the broader context, but in order to have a dialogue with folks who think differently than you do, you have to understand where they come from and try to find the common ground.

The current gun control confrontation is a perfect example.  We can understand why it is that guns have become so firmly entrenched in the US.  At the moment, it is largely driven by gun manufacturers and sellers.  They are able to construct a mythology of threat to their very freedoms not simply because people fear losing the joy of shooting their weapon, but because of the very fact that the economy is tenuous and people feel economically threatened.  There is already a mythology of "big government" as a significant part of the problem for declining opportunity.  Thus, the weakened economy and corporate attacks on workers are all explained as the result of government's intervention into daily life.  Because the government is the problem, of course, they are going to want to take away your guns so you have no say.  The gun lobby has successfully turned their own rational self interest into a revolutionary cause against a tyrannical government.  The irrationality of the people who speak out (not necessarily even the heart of the gun lobby itself, like the actual manufacturers and sellers) is characteristic of this fear of government takeover and penetration into your very life.  Now, contradictions abound including all the legislation proposing the mingling of church and state, abortion, gay rights, etc. to limit individual rights.  So, you cannot talk to folks about a general notion of getting government out of your business, but focus more on their fears and explanation for their problems.  We can talk to them all we want about why there is economic insecurity and the role of government, but until the economy improves and government is wrested away from lobbyists and corporate interests, we will find it very difficult to combat the onslaught of propaganda and misinformation by corporate interests.

We like to think that people are logical.  In large part they are, but the fact that the flow of information is controlled by those who are serving their own interests means that people do not have access to accurate information on which they can make a logical decision.  People appear irrational only because the information they receive is so distorted.  I think this is the value of the sociological imagination.  In order to understand individual motivation, you have to understand the social structure of which people are a part.  We can understand their motivations much better if we understand the structure that gives rise to those motivations.  Unless we change the structure, it will be very difficult to change the motivations.  People who are against gun control will continue to be against gun control until they feel that their guns are merely recreational and not also revolutionary.  They may still want their guns, but I imagine, the debate will not be as politically charged so that some progress can be made.

The proper level of analysis has been a long-standing debate in sociology.  Most sociologists have marginalized the macro approach, but there is some good stuff still around.  It is much easier to interview 20 people and write down what they say than to have to create a cogent, historically and sociologically informed argument.  Since the emphasis is on publication, the quality of much of sociology is determined by the limits imposed by the journal article format.  Situating your argument consumes too many pages to fit within the confines of a typical journal article.  This is another issue that can be understood in the broader context!

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