How things work

Social scientists have a set of abstract goals in approaching their work.  They want to formulate specific research questions about limited aspects of the social world and then arrive at empirical and explanatory insights into those matters. They look for the evidence of social structures and systems, regularities of social behavior in populations and groups, and so on. They are looking to provide abstract, general knowledge about how society works. They would like to arrive at clear “diagrams” of the social structures and mechanisms that constitute the contemporary social world.

But think about the challenge of understanding society from the other end of the stick — the perspective of the ordinary participant. From the participant’s perspective the situation often looks more like an environment of black boxes: how will the world respond if I do X, Y, or Z? And for a significant part of society, how the boxes work is a life-affecting mystery.

There is a significant proportion of almost any society for whom these kinds of questions can be answered with a satisfying routine: if I go to work today I can count on getting a day’s pay; my pay will permit me to satisfy my ordinary needs reasonably well; and tomorrow will be equally routine. The police won’t hassle me, my home won’t be broken into, my health is good, and my children’s school situation is good.  So there isn’t much at stake for this group of people as they consider how the social world around them works.

What about people for whom life is not routine and comfortable, however? Put yourself in the position of an African-American high-school-educated worker who has just lost his job in Taylor, Michigan. Suppose you’ve got an apartment for your family of five that costs $750/month. You’ve got an old car that breaks down frequently. While you’ve been working your family has just barely scraped by. Now that you’ve lost your job things are no longer routine. Unemployment insurance brings in less than 60% of the wages you’d been making. That’s not enough to cover all the bills you’ve got — rent, food, clothes for the children, gas for the clunker, a few medical bills.

So what choices does the environment offer now? The largest part of the family budget is the apartment. So maybe moving out early is a good choice — find something even cheaper, live in a shelter for a few months, live in the clunker. These are desperate choices — being homeless is desperate, and it’s hard to find an apartment for less than $500. Also, the landlord will probably want first and last month rent deposit as well as proof of employment, and you haven’t got that. So maybe it’s the shelter or the car.

Looking for a new job is an obvious choice. But the unemployment rate in Wayne County is much higher than the rest of the state and the nation. So that’s iffy. How about borrowing? Like many of your friends and family, you don’t have a credit card and you don’t have assets that could be the basis for borrowing. There’s nothing in the house that can be sold. And you’ve got about $1000 in cash. So what to do? Your landlord won’t be patient after a few months of missed rent checks.

Maybe looking for work outside of Wayne County will occur to you. Maybe there are jobs in Texas. But how would you find out? Would you use part of the thousand dollars and take a bus to Houston where you have a cousin, or to Dallas where you don’t know anyone? That leaves about $800 for your family to survive on while you’re gone — is that a good risk? And how likely is it that you’ll find work in Texas that will permit you to send enough money back home to make the difference? 

Or maybe another part of Michigan might have more jobs. Not Flint, that’s for sure. But what about Grand Rapids? Now the question of race comes into the picture. How receptive is Grand Rapids to an unemployed black man looking for work? How will the police treat you when you arrive in the bus station? Are there social services that might help out till you found work? How would you know? Have you got any friends in GR who might be able to get you started?

You might be very well aware that a lack of education is holding you back. So maybe you can get some training at a community college to boost your job skills — welding or health tech, perhaps. But that takes time, and you’ve only got a thousand dollars and an unemployment check. That would have been a good idea a while ago, but it’s hard to see how to make it work now. 

And what about the criminal options? Maybe you know some guys who sometimes break into stopped rail cars in Detroit. Once in a while they find stuff that can be sold. Does that make sense? What’s the likelihood of being caught? Is there money in this kind of racket? How would you sort that out?

My point in this thought experiment is to draw out how different the “social epistemics” are for the marginalized 30-40% in our society from the rest of us. The routine relationships they have with the social world around them don’t satisfy their most basic needs. They’ve got to do something different. And none of the options are obvious in their mechanics or outcomes. There are uncertainties everywhere, and every choice is a bet against disaster. This is a very personal kind of social calculation: it requires figuring out which play may push destitution off for a few weeks or months. 

And yet in one sense they’re dealing with the same realities as the social scientist: large institutions (labor market, state social service agencies), informal social practices and networks (networks of people willing to share what they’ve got, networks of people preying on the formal economy), large social realities like racism and police violence.

One of the things I appreciate in Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins novels is the care Mosley takes to work out the ordinary street knowledge that Easy needed — and mastered — as he survived and thrived in the gritty world of Los Angeles in the fifties and sixties. Easy had a very strong street epistemology, not as a sociologist but as an intelligent observer of a complicate set of social black boxes. Here is one good example, A Little Yellow Dog : Featuring an Original Easy Rawlins Short Story “Gray-Eyed Death”.

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