Was Jane Austen the first sociologist?

An English professor argues author Jane Austen made observations similar to those of sociologists:

In his lecture “Jane Austen, Sociologist,” Wednesday night James Thompson argued that Jane Austen is the first sociologist because the focus is on human interaction and conversation in her novels.

“As a careful observer and recorder of association of small group interaction and the minutia of conversation, I am going to argue that Austen is less a moralist than the first sociologist,” Thompson, a professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said…

He said Austen’s work [Pride and Prejudice] had similar observations as Erving Goffman, a 20th century sociologist. Both Austen and Goffman emphasize the importance of first impressions. Thompson said Austen and Goffman both see a first impression as “a crucial test case of social form.” He explained that a first impression is a measure of how well the participants of a conversation understand the “rules” of social interaction.

“Jane Austen and Erving Goffman are simply the most acute observers and analysts of the minutia of conversation so far,” Thompson said.

Interesting to note that this argument comes from an English professor; how many sociologists would agree? I suspect sociologists might argue sociologists aren’t just people who can make astute observations about social life. Rather, sociologists have a particular approach to society that involves theories and a method to collecting and analyzing data. For example, while Austen and Goffman both looked at interactions, Goffman aimed to explain why humans act this way: to make a good first impression and save face.

I’ve wondered why there isn’t more formal overlap between sociologists and those in the field of English. The topics of study are study can be similar though the focus in English is often on the text while sociologists have a wider range of data sources. Sociologists of literature are rare even though texts have had a large influence on American society.

Tom Wolfe and Max Weber’s ideas about status

In the wake of the release of his new book Back to BloodTom Wolfe talks about his “sociological approach to writing”:

On his sociological approach to writing

“This attention to status … started when I was in graduate school and I was in a program called American Studies, which was a mixture of different disciplines but one [in which] you were forced to take sociology. I had always looked down on sociology as this arriviste discipline that didn’t have the noble history of English and history as a subject. But once I had a little exposure to it, I said, ‘Hey, here’s the key. Here’s the key to understanding life and all its forms.’ And the great theorist or status theorist was a German named Max Weber. And from that time on, I said this obviously is the way to analyze people in all of their manifestations. I mean, my theory is that every moment — even when you’re by yourself in the bathroom, you are trying to live up to certain status requirements as if someone were watching … It’s only when your life is in danger that you drop all that.”

If you have read any of Wolfe’s novels, you know his characters are constantly worried about status: what do people think of me? In The Bonfire of the Vanities , Sherman McCoy starts at the top of the world as a bond trader but the story traces his path to the bottom as he loses his job, his family, and, most importantly, his previous status as “Master of the Universe.” On the other side, the title character in I Am Charlotte Simmons comes from a more humble background and has to learn how to negotiate within an elite university.

Weber built upon Marx’s ideas about the means and modes of production by adding the dimension of status. Marx argues social class was determined by economic factors; you either had access to and control of economic resources or not. But Weber suggested status, or prestige, was also tied up with economic resources. Thus, one might be high status but relatively lower on the economic ladder or vice versa. An example of this in today’s society would be a measure of occupational prestige where Americans are asked to rate different occupations on a prestige scale from 1-100. Here is one such table from Harris Interactive in 2009:

Firefighters don’t make the most money nor do nurses but both are considered more prestigious, probably because they involve caring for people. In contrast, look at the bottom of the list: occupations where the actors may be perceived as looking more for money or their own interests are considered less prestigious.

If you want to read more on the connection between Tom Wolfe, sociology, and the concept of status, Joel Best wrote an interesting 2001 piece titled “‘Status! Yes!’: Tom Wolfe as a Sociological Thinker. I also wonder if there isn’t a hint of Goffman in Wolfe’s work as well. What he describes above also could play out through the concept of impression management and the constant need to change our behavior to fit the changing social situations.

 

How powerful is the distrust of Facebook among its 900 million plus users?

A commentator who praises Facebook tries to get at why so many users are suspicious about Facebook and willing to believe rumors like the recent one that Facebook was revealing private messages on walls:

The problem is that when technologists talk about data and privacy, for many of us it is still in the abstract. For technologists and computer scientists, data is a thing that lives somewhere, it has a logic and can be parsed, made sense of, organized into databases. It can be searched and ultimately sold. But as Nathan Jurgenson, a social-media theorist, points out, for most people “data is this weird nebulous concept that somebody knows something about me, but I don’t know what they know.”…

A Democratic candidate for the Maine State Senate was attacked recently by her Republican opponent for her playing of the multiplayer online game “World of Warcraft.” According to her critics, the politician playing a “rogue orc assassin” was unbecoming. This collision of two seemingly different personalities — on the one hand, a social worker and moderate politician, and on the other, a violent assassin (online) who likes stabbing things — is what sociologists have called “role strain.”

“Identities that were cultivated in little tide pools, that were conceived to be separate, come clashing together,” says Marc A. Smith, a sociologist and social-media expert. “The issue now is that all of these other identities, the idea that we can perform them on separate stages and that they had separate audiences, that is collapsing and the sound of its collapse is the sound of people squealing.”

In his 1959 “Presentation of Self In Everyday Life,” the sociologist Erving Goffman wrote about the idea of “front stage” and “back stage.” In Goffman’s theory, when they’re “front stage,” people engage in “impression management,” choosing their clothing, speech, and adapting the way they present themselves to their audience. “Back stage” they can be more themselves, which might mean shedding their societal role. In the era of social media, Smith says that “we live in a culture where the back stage keeps disappearing.” We think the conversations we are having are in private, but, in fact, they are publicly accessible and data has a long half-life. When U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney spoke to a select audience about the “47 percent,” he was, in fact, speaking to everyone. What happens in “World of Warcraft” doesn’t always stay in “World of Warcraft.”…

Or perhaps front stage there is a deep sense of unease about Facebook, but back stage we are not half as worried as we seem.

The suggestion here is that the world of audience segregation and impression management, where we can and do craft our actions, words, and behaviors to a particular audience, is slowly fading away. By doing more things online, these different parts of life are coming together in new ways. And I tend to agree with this journalist: there are over 900 million Facebook users, many of whom have calculated that they are willing to at least put a little information out there in return for the benefits that Facebook like keeping in touch with friends, being able to access information about others that was previously unavailable, or even acquiring the status that comes with keeping up with everyone else. A good number of users express complaints or features of Facebook that make them uneasy but relatively few are willing to give it up all together.

Indeed, we might be in the middle of a very important era where slowly individuals are thinking about and practicing new ways to present themselves and see others through mediums like Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg has expressed the goal of Facebook being a more open society where even less information on Facebook would be private, hidden, or restricted to friends. We could also look at this from the other angle: isn’t it remarkable that millions of people around the world in a span of less than 10 years have voluntarily put out information about themselves? One key might be that Facebook doesn’t force them to reveal everything; users can still practice impression management by crafting a profile. However, these are not “fake” or “untrue” profiles; rather the information is an approximation of the user’s true self.

Sociological concepts that help explain why some companies are telling employees to avoid work email at home

Some companies are telling their employees to not check their work email at home:

In recent years, one in four companies have created similar rules on e-mail, both formal and informal, according to a recent survey by the Society for Human Resource Management. Firms trying out these policies include Volkswagen, some divisions of PricewaterhouseCoopers and shipping company PBD Worldwide.

For the vast majority of companies and federal offices, the muddying of work and personal time has had financial advantages. Corporations and agencies, unable to hire, are more productive than ever thanks in part to work-issued smartphones, tablets and other mobile technology, economists say…

“There is no question e-mail is an important tool, but it’s just gone overboard and encroached in our lives in a way where employees were feeling like it was harder and harder to achieve a good balance,” said Robert Musslewhite, chief executive of the Advisory Board, a health and education research and software-services firm.

Official numbers show just one in 10 people brings work home, according to a Labor Department report in 2010. But economists say that figure is wildly conservative because it counts only those who are clocking in those hours for extra pay.

Three sociological ideas shed some light on this:

1. This increased level of stress might be due to the mixing of the front-stage and back-stage performances of employees. Sociologist Erving Goffman wrote about these two settings, the first where we play a role, in this case as employee, and this requires emotional and physical energy. In the latter setting, we can let down our guard. Checking work email at home means this back-stage setting is interrupted.

2. This reminds me of the work by sociologist Christena Nippert-Eng on the symbolic boundaries between home and work. We place home and work in certain mental categories and so crossing these boundaries can create some difficulties. Sociologist Ray Oldenberg suggested another way around these two symbolic boundaries: we need “third places” like coffee shops and pubs where workers can relax and interact with other citizens in settings distinct from work and home.

3. A few centuries ago, more average citizens may have mixed home and work as people worked in their homes or very near by. It wasn’t until the industrial era that more employees had to travel further to their workplaces, creating a larger physical difference between home and work that also translated into more symbolic difference. Perhaps this story about email is a reminder that at this point in history we are swinging back to mixing  home and work because of technology that transcends physical boundaries.

Living alone means having no “social checks and balances”?

As more Americans live alone, these solo dwellers may have different behaviors at home:

In a sense, living alone represents the self let loose. In the absence of what Mr. Klinenberg calls “surveilling eyes,” the solo dweller is free to indulge his or her odder habits — what is sometimes referred to as Secret Single Behavior. Feel like standing naked in your kitchen at 2 a.m., eating peanut butter from the jar? Who’s to know?

Amy Kennedy, 28, a schoolteacher who has a two-bedroom apartment in High Point, N.C., all to herself, calls it living without “social checks and balances.”…

Among her domestic oddities: running in place during TV commercials; speaking conversational French to herself while making breakfast (she listens to a language CD); singing Journey songs in the shower; and removing only the clothes she needs from her dryer, thus turning it into a makeshift dresser…

What emerges over time, for those who live alone, is an at-home self that is markedly different — in ways big and small — from the self they present to the world. We all have private selves, of course, but people who live alone spend a good deal more time exploring them.

This sounds like Goffman’s dramaturgical approach: those living alone can be truly back-stage with themselves perhaps in a way they never could with a spouse or family. Would all of us exhibit this kind of quirky behavior if we didn’t have others around at home? Without others around to enforce the social norms of behavior, perhaps we become our only standard.

This makes me think about an area of life we don’t examine enough: what do people do when they are alone? Do they generally follow social conventions or are all people quirky? Do they feel comfortable when alone? Are there limits to much we can talk to each other about being alone or how much we can ask about what others do when they are alone? How do alone behaviors and feelings about being alone differ across cultures? Do people in the Western world today spend more or less time alone than in the past? Do we feel a need to have more alone time (“me-time”?) or do simply express this more? How do others tend to respond when we express loneliness or express that we like to be alone?

One thing I noted when reading this article: what about being alone yet through different mediums not really being alone? I’m thinking of situations where someone is alone but they are watching TV, listening to the radio, or interacting with people online. (Might reading also fall into this?) Of course, this kind of interaction is different than face-to-face interaction but is it truly living alone? I tend to be a person who likes to listen to talk radio – am I alone when doing this? Additionally, does this mediated interactions limit the quirky side of living alone?

It might be difficult methodologically to get at alone time. I assume the best way to do this would be to have cameras observing people while alone. Of course, it would take some time for people to forget the cameras are there but it would happen eventually. Other methods would not be as good: having a person do the observations would alter the setting too much; time diaries are unreliable; and surveys or interviews after the fact could be helpful but would end up being interpreted accounts.

Using “amateur sociology” to have better Christmas conversations

One columnist has some tips in “amateur sociology” in how to deal with all the conversations you might encounter during the Christmas season:

Tis the season for amateur sociology – if we want to share space with one another happily, that is. With parties and family get-togethers, tension and social gaffes lurk behind every pine swag. And so in honour of the holiday spirit – and the need to enjoy each other’s company, even if you have to pretend – I offer some observations about the art of conversation…

That’s the thing about pleasant conversation. It’s a dance of fancy footwork, a minefield of social explosive devices to be avoided, the exact opposite of what the popular culture of confession and narcissistic Facebook commentary suggests is important. A good conversationalist has a feel for nuance; an understanding of grace; an ability to make careful entrees and gentle exits. He is not obsessed with his own status updates. And he’s adept at skilled deflections.

To make for happy party dynamics, you must demure at times, remain silent when necessary, nod, listen, dare to be conventional and find refuse in a discussion about the weather.

Rarely do you need to say exactly how you feel, especially if it’s about Aunt Shirley’s disgraceful behaviour at the last family get-together.

In recent years, I’ve read various people suggesting that the art of good conversation is slowly dying, particularly among younger generations. Common targets for this include Facebook (like above), rougher political discourse, and a growing sense of incivility.

But, it seems to me that if you want people to be good at conversation, they have to be taught and they have to practice. This is true of any social norm or practice. This doesn’t necessarily mean going to finishing school or things like that but there should be commonly-found settings where good conversation can be found. Reading a tips column like this doesn’t help too much because it can’t prepare one for all the twists and turns a human-to-human conversation might take. Perhaps reading more Erving Goffman and other notable symbolic interactionists could help. Or perhaps keeping Mead’s “generalized other” in mind would help.

So who wants to take up this task?

Facebook information and privacy: enticing or overwhelming?

There are a lot of users of Facebook and similar sites. One of the primary concerns of users is privacy: who can see their personal information and how it might be used. Two commentators talk about how users respond to this issue:

Sociologist Nathan Jurgenson has an interesting post about Facebook and his skepticism about proclamations of the end of privacy and anonymity. He deploys the postmodernist/poststructuralist insight that each piece of information shared raises more questions about what hasn’t been said, and thus strategic sharing can create different realms of personal privacy and public mystery.

We know that knowledge, including what we post on social media, indeed follows the logic of the fan dance: we always enact a game of reveal and conceal, never showing too much else we have given it all away. It is better to entice by strategically concealing the right “bits” at the right time. For every status update there is much that is not posted. And we know this. What is hidden entices us.

I think this is missing the point. I feel like I need to use all caps to stress this: LOTS OF PEOPLE DON’T WANT ATTENTION. They don’t want to be enticing. Privacy is not about hiding the truth. It’s about being able to avoid the spotlight…

Social media confronts us with how little control we have over our public identity, which is put into play and reinterpreted and tossed around while we watch—while all the distortions and gossip gets fed back to us by the automated feedback channels. Some people find this thrilling. Others find it terrible. It’s always been true that we don’t control how we are seen, but at least we could control how much we had to know about it. It’s harder now to be aloof, to be less aware of our inevitable performativity. We are forced instead to fight for the integrity of our manufactured personal brand.

Jurgenson seems to be referring to the impression management work done by users who are able to craft their image. Most users know that certain pieces of information can hurt them, such as unpleasant photos, so they don’t include that information. Even more so, users try to present a positive image of themselves with generally happy pictures and an acceptable set of interests and activities. And there is a lot that is hidden: I would guess that a majority of users post pretty infrequently. This impression management, reminiscent of Goffman’s front-stage/back-stage dichotomy, has been well established by researchers.

Rob Horning, responding to Jurgenson, suggests that Facebook exposes “how little control we have over our public identity.” This may be true: even small pieces of information might present problems. Additionally, I think he is right in saying that a lot of users don’t want attention: they simply want a low-maintenance way to connect with current and past friends.

But, I would argue that users have a good amount of control over their “public identity” on the Internet. To start, they don’t have to participate and a sizable minority does not. It seems like the easiest way to lose control over what is available on the Internet is to post it yourself, whether on Facebook or a blog or Twitter feed or somewhere else. Second, even if one does participate, Jurgenson suggests that much still remains hidden. There are few people who are willing to reveal everything and few who actually want to. (I’ve always wondered if Facebook users are mostly annoyed with those people who do seem to present everything, good and bad, through their profiles.) Third, one can be friends who they want, limiting who is going to see and possibly use this information. I think a lot of the genius of Facebook is that users feel like they are in control of these aspects and generally resist efforts that use their information in ways that they may not desire. In the end, there are ways in which one can participate without doing much or exposing much.

Horning’s conclusion is interesting: “It’s harder now to be aloof, to be less aware of our inevitable performativity. We are forced instead to fight for the integrity of our manufactured personal brand.” Perhaps this is the real issue, not privacy: since we know that there are others crafting their personal image, we now have the choice to keep up or not. It is not quite a competition but rather mediated social interaction where we can see how others (and they can see how we) “put ourselves together” online. The SNS realm is now another social realm to worry about and it is hard to get away from: did I post a witty enough comment? Is that picture flattering of me? Should I be Facebook friends with that person I never really talked to? These decisions may be consequential…or they may not.

Lady Gaga mentions that she studies “the sociology of fame”

A recent course at the University of South Carolina titled “Lady Gaga and the Sociology of Fame” drew a lot of attention. But it appears that Lady Gaga herself has an interest in the sociology of fame. Here is part of the conversation Lady Gaga had with Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes:

“You’ve studied the fame of other people, how they got it, how they kept it and how they lost it,” Cooper remarked.

“The sociology of fame and how to maintain a certain privacy without, feeling like you’re withholding anything from your fans. My philosophy is that if I am open with them about everything, and yet I art direct every moment of my life, I can maintain a sort of privacy in a way. I maintain a certain soulfulness that I have yet to give,” Lady Gaga said.

The pressures of maintaining fame and the deadly price other superstars have paid for it are frequent themes in Lady Gaga’s performances. At the MTV Video Music Awards she shocked the audience by the ending of her song “Paparazzi.” Drenched in blood and hanging above the stage, she resembled a blond icon dying before our eyes.

“That’s what everyone wants to know, right? ‘What’s she gonna look like when she dies? What’s she gonna look like when she’s overdosed?’ on whatever they think I’m overdosing on? Everybody wants to see the decay of the superstar,” Lady Gaga said.

“Do you think people wanna see your decay?” Cooper asked.

“What? Of course they do! They wanna see me fail, they wanna see me fall on stage, they wanna see me vomiting out of a nightclub. I mean, isn’t that the age that we live in? That we wanna see people who have it all lose it all? I mean, it’s dramatic,” she replied.

“And then climb their way back,” Cooper remarked.

“Right. It’s a movie. And yet I just am not like that on my own time. I’m not a vomit-in-the-club kind of girl,” she said.

A few questions come to mind:

1. Would sociologists agree that the cycle that celebrities go through (rise to stardom, decline, comeback attempt) is “the sociology of fame?”

2. Does this mean that Lady Gaga is simply playing a role for her fans and for others? If she is so aware of how the script goes, is she doing anything original or authentic? She suggests she “art direct[s] every moment of [her] life” but also claims she is still able to maintain a private side. A classic front-stage/back-stage Erving Goffman explanation.

2a. If she knows that the decay is coming, will she choose to initiate it herself or at least push in a certain direction to maintain some control over it?

2b. There could be some interesting material in thinking about the entertainment or spectacle that Lady Gaga offers and why this is attractive to people.

3. What did Lady Gaga think of having a sociology class named after her (even though the class was about popular music in general)? Is this when she started thinking about “the sociology of fame”?

The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life and playing Portal

Erving Goffman’s 1959 work The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life is a sociological classic. “Portal” is a video game that has received good reviews (90 out of 100 at MetaCritic.com). How could they fit together?

According to a story at Mashable.com, they are both part of some sections of a required Freshman course at Wabash College in Indiana:

The game will be part of a mandatory Freshman seminar called “Enduring Questions” that will explore “fundamental questions of humanity” through “classical and contemporary works.” A theater professor named Michael Abbott is among the faculty members designing the course.

Inspired by a game theory article drawing comparisons between Portal and Erving Goffman’s 1959 sociology text The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Abbott nominated Portal as one of the works that students would be required to experience and discuss to pass the class.

He demonstrated the game for his non-gaming colleagues and was pleased to find that they appreciated and approved the plan to assign Goffman’s text and follow it up with “a collective playthrough of Portal.”

I haven’t played Portal but this sounds like an intriguing combination. I wonder how many college classes today include video games…

Twitter as Goffmanian performance

Peggy Orenstein writes in the New York Times about her use of Twitter. Here is part of her commentary which references famous sociologist Erving Goffman:

Back in the 1950s, the sociologist Erving Goffman famously argued that all of life is performance: we act out a role in every interaction, adapting it based on the nature of the relationship or context at hand. Twitter has extended that metaphor to include aspects of our experience that used to be considered off-set: eating pizza in bed, reading a book in the tub, thinking a thought anywhere, flossing. Effectively, it makes the greasepaint permanent, blurring the lines not only between public and private but also between the authentic and contrived self. If all the world was once a stage, it has now become a reality TV show: we mere players are not just aware of the camera; we mug for it.

According to Goffman, every social interaction is actually like a theater drama as the individual actors look to play a role that ultimately saves them face. The advantage of Twitter, and other social software, is that it always a user to craft their performance at their own convenience. A user can reveal what they wish, when they wish.

Goffman was also interested in the divide between this performance and when an individual could be their true self. Individuals travel between these front-stage and back-stage worlds. Some users might feel they are revealing their true self in software like Twitter but I think this is unlikely. The act of tweeting or operating in front of a camera includes the knowledge that someone else is going to see what is revealed and this inevitably changes the action. Perhaps we can only truly be back-stage when we are in situations where they will be no human interaction. Goffman was also interested in these situations, such as when we are alone.