David Brooks hits on a lesson I teach in my Social Research class: studying sociology involves both looking for empirical patterns (facts) and the interpretations of patterns, real or not (meanings). Here is how Brooks puts it:
An event is really two things. It’s the event itself and then it’s the process by which we make meaning of the event. As Aldous Huxley put it, “Experience is not what happens to you, it’s what you do with what happens to you.”
In my class, this discussion comes about through reading the 2002 piece by Roth and Mehta titled “The Rashomon Effect: Combining Positivist and Interpretivist Approaches in the Analysis of Contested Events.” The authors argue research needs to look at what actually happened (the school shootings under study here) as well as how people in the community understood what happened (which may or may not have aligned with what actually happened but had important consequences for local social life). Both aspects might be interesting to study on their own – here is a phenomenon or here is what people make of this – but together researchers can get a full human experience where facts and meanings interact.
Brooks writes this in the context of the media. A good example of how this would be applied is the matter of journalists looking to spot trends. There are new empirical patterns to spot and point out. New social phenomena develop often (and figuring out where they come from can be a whole different complex matter). At the same time, we want to know what these trends mean. If psychologist Jean Twenge says there are troubling patterns as the result of smartphone use among teenagers and young adults, we can examine the empirical data – is smartphone use connected to other outcomes? – and what we think about all of this – is it good that this might be connected to increased loneliness?
More broadly, Brooks is hinting at the realm of sociology of culture where culture can be defined as patterns of meaning-making. The ways in which societies, groups, and individuals make meaning of their own actions and the social world around them is very important.