Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Silly Sociology

I first had an inkling that things were not going extremely well in sociology when I looked for a definition of collective identity among the works of today's leading sociologists. The state-of-the-art definition I encountered was the following:
Collective identity is something that somehow brings certain people together.
The earth-shattering announcement that collective identity is something came in a very thick and expensively edited book with glossy hard covers that was published by a group of sociologists in 2002.

Then, a Canadian friend who is in sociology begged that I take part in the study conducted by his department. The study consisted of a survey I had to answer online where I was expected to finish the statement "I'm a. . . " 25 times. It became clear to me very soon that they were expecting me to place my salient collective identifications first, and the less salient later. I sat there for a while, staring stupidly at the test. The only answer I could come up with was, "I'm a person." Then, I started providing variations on that. "I'm a beautiful person," "I'm a tired person," "I'm a stupid person who agrees to take part in idiotic sociological studies."

At least once every semester our graduate students in sociology ask us to participate in a study they are conducting. Every single time, the questions they ask us are mind-boggling in their silliness. Last year, an earnest grad student tortured me for 20 minutes with questions about "work-life balance," a concept that I find impossible to comprehend. Work is obviously a part of life (at least for me, given that I am employed). Work and life are not two separate entities. It isn't like I die when I arrive at the office and then come back to life after I leave it. You cannot balance a whole and one of its parts, can you? 

When I regaled the grad student with this speech, she looked at me like I was an idiot and said, "This is not how you are supposed to answer. The goal of the study is to prove that for female academics achieving a work-life balance is hard. So you should tell me how hard it is." 

Of course, I was not surprised that a sociological study was being conducted in order to achieve predetermined results. Or that it was based on a meaningless set of terms. Or that anybody would want to waste time and resources on such a useless exercise. I just told the student that my work and life were in perfect balance and it wasn't hard at all.

I have no doubt that she excluded my answers from the final results of her study.


eric said...

From what I understand from the one sociological theory seminar I took in grad school, "collective identity" involves any set of shared historical experiences. Such a concept goes deeper than what you wish to call yourself, but also involves a narrative (qualitative account) of family history, place in the social/economic structure, etc. I would go so far as to consider "the individual" (as distinct from the 'self') as a collective identity of sorts, since such a concept is a construct of consumer capitalist culture. It may be that the discipline of sociology is in a funk right now, but be it that I've been out of academe for a few years now, I have no idea.

Clarissa said...

Invented historical experiences, you forgot to add.

Anonymous said...

Eeg. Don't sociologists take methods courses? You can't just ask dopey questions and hope the dart may hit a cork board somewhere. Geez.

Lindsay said...

"This is not how you are supposed to answer. The goal of this study is [blah blah blah]"

And THAT'S not how you are supposed to conduct research! Geez.

(I would point out that to people who hate their jobs, and only work them because they would starve otherwise, "work" and "life" are intelligible as distinct categories.)

Tanya Golash-Boza said...

Much of sociology is the painstaking elaboration of the obvious. However, in many cases, we need the data that sociology provides to prove the obvious. For example, sociological research provides proof that blacks earn less than whites, that wealth is the best predictor of SAT scores, and that US schools are just as racially segregated today as they were 25 years ago.

Pagan Topologist said...

I admit to a strong bias against sociology, yet I love anthropology. I had never been able to explain the difference in a way that would justify my strong opinions about the two fields. However, a friend of mine(who is a Mediaeval French literature specialist) several years ago told me that it was because anthropologists have very clear rules of evidence while sociologists do not. His analysis rings true to me, but it is just as a justification of my prejudices, of course.