Sociologist Robert Merton featured in Final Jeopardy!

Sociology rarely makes an appearance on Jeopardy! but the discipline was featured in the Final Jeopardy! question on January 8:

Final Jeopardy! clue: Often applied to athletes, this 2-word term popularized by Robert K. Merton refers to an example we aspire to.

I was not aware that this term was popularized by Merton. If anybody popularized this term in recent decades, it was Charles Barkley who several decades ago said:

“I’m not paid to be a role model. I’m paid to wreak havoc on the basketball court.”

Read a quick overview of the concept of role model as well as a summary of Merton’s wide-ranging career (which included popularizing other terms such as “self-fulfilling prophecy”).

Undergraduates discovering positive deviance

While we might typically consider deviance to be negative, an activity in one sociology class illustrates how deviance can also be positive:

“Can I pay for her drink, too?” asked Caitlin Hendricks.

Peterson was pleasantly surprised but still taken aback; she and Hendricks didn’t know each other…

Hendricks’ random act of kindness wasn’t entirely random: She was completing an assignment for sociology professor Michelle Inderbitzin’s deviant behavior and social control class at OSU, which studies the concept of social deviance and how it can vary based on history and context.

Inderbitzin has assigned the “positive deviance” exercise in her social deviance class at OSU for six years. She asks students to simply do something nice for a stranger — bag someone else’s groceries, for example, or hold an umbrella over someone’s head while it’s raining. Students then write a page-long recap of their experience, focusing on the recipient’s reactions as well as their own feelings before and after the act and discuss their experience in class.

This is a good reminder about positive deviance that might lead to the world of Pay It Forward in popular culture but can be examined more closely sociologically. This reminds me of the ideas of Emile Durkheim who thought deviance could help reinforce existing norms. By seeing people break norms and then experience the consequences, others are reminded of the norms. At the same time, it seems that most sociologists have focused on the creation of or breaking of social norms. For example, Robert Merton’s strain theory describes how when people are faced with anomie, they respond in different ways including breaking norms.

It is interesting to think about why we as a society tend to focus on negative deviance more than positive deviance. Perhaps it is tied to findings that show we experience loss more deeply than gain. Perhaps it is because we have media sources that tend to lead with crime (and presumably they do this because it brings an audience). Perhaps it is because some argue we have a violent, individualistic culture. Simply throwing in a few positive stories on the nightly news may not be enough to overcome society’s emphasis on negative deviance.