Cognizing society

“Society” is a large abstract whole — more abstract, really, than “nature”. We as social beings perceive very little of this whole directly, though we do perceive fairly directly many local social facts, social interactions, and social relations. We are often astute readers of the social situations around us — what our students may be expressing with their ironic looks during a lecture, what the car mechanic may be thinking about the clueless car owner with bad brakes, or what is likely to happen when it is announced that 15 percent of employees will be laid off in our company. So we have lots of social knowledge. But our knowledge and experience of “society” are highly partial and local. Many aspects of the social world are invisible to me as a specific, situated person — because they are remote from me spatially (I don’t know how farmers behave with each other in the Oklahoma Panhandle), because they are outside my realm culturally or socially (I don’t know how homeless people cope with illness), and possibly because they do not fit easily into the categories of understanding that I bring to my perceptions. (If I have not been exposed to abusive behavior by police in impoverished neighborhoods, I may not perceive the threatening body language of a group of police officers as they move through a crowded neighborhood.)

This is for me a large part of the fascination of the topics raised in this blog, UnderstandingSociety. Most postings here are concerned with how we perceive social affairs; how we organize these perceptions into representations of larger social constructs; and how we attempt to make sense of what we perceive and organize — that is, how we understand the social world that we inhabit. And these are problems for observers at every level — social science experts, social policy designers, and ordinary people.

Much of this description has as much to do with ordinary people making sense of their social world as with social scientists constructing complex theories and explanations of the social world. But this is appropriate, because I don’t think there is a difference in kind between the two kinds of social cognition. Or rather, there is a difference between ordinary perception of society and social science; but it is a difference of degree of rigor about evidence and hypothesis rather than a difference in the nature of the representations and inferences that either ordinary people or scientists arrive at.

(Whereas one might make a case for holding that everyday “physics” is different in principle from mathematical and theoretical physics. Folk social knowledge is closer to official social science than folk knowledge of nature is to physics.)

So what are some of the aspects of social life that people observe directly? Take some of the fundamentals: family relations, race relations, or economic relations. Marie, a maid in a luxury hotel, has a perspective of several of these social categories. She has a very direct perspective on the employment relation — she is poorly paid, her supervisors are rough and disrespectful, and maybe she is subjected to a degree of sexual harassment on the job as well. (The nature of experience at this level of society is one of the interesting things we can learn from Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America). Marie also has an interesting perspective on class relations in our society — the comings and goings of the affluent, some of their values, how they dress, and the ways that they treat people outside their circles. Further, since the imagined Marie is Haitian, she also has a perspective on race, culture, and ethnicity in America. And, if she is a thoughtful observer, she may well have organized these observations into some “theories” or mental frameworks about how capitalism works, how racial discrimination works, how class and status serve to structure interpersonal relations in places like restaurants or hotels, and what America is like. In other words, this maid is an active observer and interpreter of social structures, social behaviors, and social relations.

What is the epistemic status of Marie’s theories? We’ve already noticed two important features: first, her theories are derived from her own experience and observations; and second, they are partial and perspective-bound. The first point provides a basis for thinking that these theories are empirically grounded and worthy of attention. And the second point pretty much assures that they aren’t completely “true”. What looks like racial discrimination or condescension in the behavior of some of the guests may be something more complicated. Race relations in a factory may have a different feel and structure than race relations in a hotel. And it may be that Marie’s theories about what is happening are pretty accurate concerning her local workplace, but her theories about how and why this is happening may be wildly wrong.

In other words, Marie’s representations, based on observation and experience, are an important input into a somewhat more comprehensive sociology of work, race and class. The more comprehensive treatment ought to consider the experiences and cognitions on these subjects of a wide range of people — architects, taxi drivers, engineers, transit workers, and public school teachers, for example. And it ought to consider some of the mechanisms and structures through which these lived experiences are generated and inter-connected — the mechanisms of race, the structures of urban poverty, or the dynamics of discrimination in the professional workplace, for example.

One way of taking these observations in the direction of constructing a more complete effort at “cognizing” society is perhaps not quite right, but it is intriguing. It is the idea that one component of a “sociology of the present” might be an enormous “wiki” of lived experience, in which participants throughout society and at every level offer their perspectives on the nature of the social relations in which they operate and their hypotheses about how these connect to more distant social institutions. (The realist novels of Emile Zola — The Fortune of the Rougons and dozens of other novels in a chronological series about this hypothetical family — sound a bit like this in their nuanced depiction of the experiences of people of all classes in 19th century France.) What this comprehensive wiki of social life would not provide, is an organized set of ideas about social causation and structure — about why and how the patterns that are revealed come about.


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