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Monday, April 4, 2011

The machine and the game

“The Marginal Sociologist Looks at Sociological Theory”

          It has been about ten years since I have taught a course in sociological theory, and even longer since I have taught a course in introductory sociology. Yet I cannot quit thinking about theory. At heart I am a neo-scholastic disciple of Thomas Aquinas (well, not exactly--we Franciscans think Thomas was superseded by John Duns Scotus and William of Ockham).

          Open any introductory textbook in sociology, published even as recently as 2009, and you will find, in the opening chapters, a description of the main varieties of sociological theory. Usually there are three, sometimes four: “structural-functionalism,” “conflict theory,” “symbolic interactionism,” and sometimes “rational-choice theory.”

          Intro soc courses often have a lot of students. This causes instructors to cast about for ways to save work, and publishers are happy to accommodate such a search. They provide “test banks,” whole batches of multiple-choice questions from which the instructor can randomly select enough questions to make a decent quiz or test. By the time I last taught the course, in the late 1990s, the test banks were computerized so that the instructor just had to select items and, voila, the test would appear, ready to be duplicated and distributed to the waiting students.

          I found the items disappointing. I got the impression that the items were written by hacks hired by the publishers to fill up a quota. The items seldom matched what I had been trying to do in class. I tried to write my own multiple choice items. Doing this for a while created the following experience: I was spending four-fifths of my time trying to invent false answers to questions and one-fifth creating the true answers. I thought that was a poor use of my time.

          I gave in and used the pre-cooked test bank. My students failed miserably. I decided I needed a study guide for them to use as a preparation. I would give them the opening part of the multiple-choice items, without the false and true answers. That would give them a clue as to what they should be studying. After a while I noticed that many of the items had the form  “Socialization is . . .” “Relative deprivation is . . .”

          Well, this is stupid, I thought. Why not give the student the term and have the student tell me what it is. That way the student has to do the work of formulating the answer in his or her own words. I created a study guide with about three times as many terms as were likely to be on the test, and created the test by randomly selecting from the list. This procedure had an added advantage. Invariably some student is not able to take the test on the day appointed. The instructor has two options: adopt a hard line policy: you miss the test on that day, you flunk the test or lose it as part of your grade; or the instructor has to make up an alternate test. Making up an alternate multiple-choice test is a lot of work to do for one student, even if you are using a test bank. With my technique it was easy. I would just haul out the study guide, randomly circle one-third of the items on the guide, and hand it to the student.

          My procedure had an occasional criticism from students. (Well, an occasional criticism that I heard--who knows what the students were saying behind my back?) They said it depended too much on memorization. Yes it does, I said, but half of the mastery of any field is knowing the vocabulary of that field. There are other things the student needs to know, and I always supplemented my list of terms with one or two essay questions. I was too easy on my grading of these essays--part of my poor discipline described in my previous blog item was being unwilling to spend a lot of time grading long essays. But I digress.

          The test-creating technique had one unique advantage. Hundreds of student responses to an item asking for a definition of “socialization” resulted in a lot of unique formulations of the concept. I was always saying to myself, “well maybe the student is right--it could really mean that.” I kept boiling down my own definitions of concepts to simpler and simpler wordings, capitalizing on the creativity of students. That got me to developing a whole dictionary of terms with memorizable definitions. Too often the definition of a term in the textbook was three lines long, and who can memorize three lines of a hundred definitions? But memorization is useful. It allows you to reflect on the term, and apply it in your reflections.

Three Varieties of Sociological Theory

1. Structural-functionalism

          When I began my graduate studies in 1964, there was only one form of sociological theory: structural-functionalism. That is, there was at Harvard only one form of theory. Harvard’s competitors, especially the University of Chicago, disagreed, but they were not in our world. The Harvard world as I experienced it was ruled by Talcott Parsons, and he was the structural-functionalist. As I have described elsewhere in this blog, Parsons went around the world like an intellectual vacuum cleaner, sucking up every scrap of theory and incorporating it into his Grand Synthesis. I did not know it at the time, but Parsons’s star was setting.

          Structural-functionalism depended heavily on a metaphor of the organism. A human group is like an organism, with structures, just as the human body has bones and muscles. Each structure has a function: the bones keep you standing upright, and muscles keep you moving. In a human group, the structure is made up of the norms of the group. Each norm has a function. In the family, for example, the rule is that the father should provide economically for the family, and the function of that rule is to make sure the family eats. Organisms operate by “homeostasis,” which means that if anything in the environment changes, the organism tries to maintain a stable state. If you eat too much salt, the body excretes salt and gets back to its ideal balance of salt.

          You can see why Parsons’s star was setting. His model doesn’t deal well with fundamental changes, and it can promote over-simple stereotyping (the man earns, the woman loves).

          Yet the metaphor of the organism is powerful. Paul the Apostle used it in his image of the Christian community as the Body of Christ. The hand cannot say to the foot, “I do not need you.”

          Most of us think this way much of the time. Legislators are always trying to perfect the organism. “If we just make it illegal to . . .” And laws do solve some problems. Auto travel is safer than it used to be because we have created safer roads, and roads are created by legislators.

          To me, an organism is just a fancy machine. So the real metaphor is the machine. If you can construct the perfect machine (create the perfect set of norms), you solve society’s problems. But when we solve some of the problems, we often create others. We make more and more things illegal and we fill up the prisons and then have to pay to feed and house the prisoners.

2. Conflict Theory

          Along about 1960, sociologists began to pay more attention to Karl Marx. Marx had been pretty much ostracized from sociological thinking ever since the country got scared silly in the 1930s by the prospect of “socialism” taking over. Marx’s theory, which was just a sociological version of Georg Hegel’s theory of the dialectic, was that any human group invariably splits into the haves and the have-nots. He developed this theory in all kinds of directions, of course, but what he did for sociologists was sensitize us to the existence of conflict in any human group. Structural-functionalism, using the metaphor of the organism, saw conflict as a symptom of disease in the organism, something to be gotten rid of, like pain. In a well-designed organism, there would be no conflict. Marx’s theory said “Nonsense. There will always be conflict in any group.”

          To me, this is just another variety of the metaphor of the machine. All social groups have authority structures, and the haves struggle with the have-nots. Marx just added the idea that you will never construct a machine to eliminate conflict. Homeostasis gets replaced by conflict.

3. Symbolic Interactionism

          I mentioned Chicago as Harvard’s competitor. The University of Chicago boasted the oldest department of sociology in the country (founded in 1892). Harvard did not have a department until 1931. By the 1920s Chicago was creating a whole school of empirical research, called, of course, “the Chicago School”.

          Chicago was home to a philosopher named George Herbert Mead. Sociologists picked up Mead’s ideas and, under the leadership of Herbert Blumer, created a brand of theory called “symbolic interactionism.” It was “symbolic” because it said that all human behavior is mediated through language. Blumer called it “interactionism” because he saw all human behavior as structured by the unpredictable interaction of human beings with one another.

          To me, the metaphor of “the game” was a perfect way to sum up the theory. Herbert Blumer had once played professional football--what more natural thing than for him to see all behavior as a game?

          In a game, there are rules, but the rules can be negotiated and people sometimes cheat. More importantly, you can never predict the outcome of a game. If the rules are well-designed, the teams are evenly matched and the outcome depends on the creativity of the players in figuring out ways to play against the opponent.

          That fits the reality of society better than the machine image. Every time a legislator devises a new rule to solve a problem, someone figures out a way to get around the rule. We are in a game, with fluid expectations and no sure predictions. What looks chaotic at first glance (basketball always looks that way to me) turns out to have a structure, even though you can still never predict the winner.


          Years ago I read Gene Sharps’s three volumes on nonviolent action. I became convinced that nonviolence was the answer to society’s most serious problems. If we could just get people to behave nonviolently. . . I now realize that I was unconsciously thinking along a structural-functionalist line. Nonviolence can be a useful play in a game, but it can no more guarantee victory than a single play in a football game can guarantee victory. In practice, nonviolence almost always seems to be overtaken by people who grow impatient with its slow results and move into violent solutions.

          I now believe that there are no fool-proof solutions to any human problem. We are in a game with unpredictable outcomes. The story will go on and on, and no one can predict what twists and turns it will take. As Christians we are called to enter into the game, play it in as loving way as we can, and accept the fact that we will never control the outcome.

          The game metaphor has one very important advantage as a model. It is interesting and open-ended. If society really operated like a machine, we would either become pawns in a perfectly-ordered society, or we would all die of boredom.

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