The Sociological Perspective

In order to better appreciate the "sociological imagination" I'd like you to first read, and then think about, C. Wright Mills' notion that "neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both."

Next, I'd like you to get away from your computer and into the more tangible world that surrounds you. GO TALK TO SOMEONE RIGHT NOW! You can choose a family member, friend, co-worker, or whomever you think will give you an honest, straightforward answer to this question: "WHAT IS ONE PROBLEM YOU HAD TODAY?" I'd like you to ask this question without any pre-conditioning, so don't tell this person why you are asking the question. Write down their answer and then return to this activity on your computer. Go ahead, go now, it will only take a moment. Seriously, go!.........

When I got to this activity last night, the only person around was my roommate, so I asked her, 'What was a problem you had today?' After a little thought she replied, 'getting my thoughts in order.'

My roommate is also a first term college student, and is taking three classes in addition to working. She has been out of school for a couple years, and is having trouble getting her brain back into gear. This is a problem because she has a lot of reading and writing to do for her classes!

Personal troubles are usually limited to an individual or a small group of individuals where public issues affect a much larger portion of loosely related people. This is not to say that personal troubles do not affect the larger society, in fact they most certainly do, just as public issues in turn affect personal issues. I believe Mills spoke of personal troubles as 'biographical' and public troubles as 'historical.' I believe that these words succinctly underline the meaning behind these two types of issues. There are billions of humans on this globe, and we all fall into groups, cultures, categories which when our personal troubles are taken together, they aggregate into a public trouble. In other words, when one person has trouble finding a parking space, it is a personal trouble, but when almost everyone in a certain group (racial, geographical, religious, etc) has trouble finding a parking space it becomes a public trouble, and the sociologist should start looking for the cause.

My roommate's personal trouble of being unable to study is a latent function of certain public troubles (and some of these 'troubles' are viewed as facts of our culture rather than as a deficiency). My roommate has been out of school for six years, and because of the way our culture currently exists, there is little room to practice reading non-fiction or writing essays outside of school. As everyone should know, what we do not practice becomes rusty from disuse. I would consider the general public's lack of the ability to think critically or logically or to retain pertinent information to be attributed to this 'public trouble' of having no convenient or necessary way to practice the skills that they learn in high school. I would also consider that once we all leave college, unless we take a job where these skills are used, they will again fall into disuse and we will be unable to easily "collect our thoughts and put them in order."

It is important to find the underlying social causes of personal problems because it helps us see that it is impossible to truly solve our personal problems without first solving the underlying problems of society. One of my roommate's favorite phrases when someone is complaining to her about a problem they are having is to say, 'that sounds like a personal problem!' And, I believe that it is also important to be able to recognize when a problem really DOES stem from your own personal choices and actions rather than blaming it on others (parents, neighbors, teachers, etc.)

Another reason it is important to understand how larger social structures affect the individual is because of cause and effect. Knowing that when a government or corporation or religion makes a decree or a decision or a new law that there will be consequences for the common citizen puts some of the responsibility for those problems into the moral realm of these larger entities. But, whether or not they accept that responsibility is another story altogether!

My Brother James

I’d like to tell you about my little brother James. He is the perfect picture of someone who never concedes to the pressure of what other people think. First of all, he is about a foot taller than most people, and his white-boy afro does nothing to counter this image. He likes the color purple and exotic clothing, and it doesn’t shock the people he knows to see him walking around town in a brightly colored vest, a hat and stripped pants. In the winter, he likes to wear a tremendous trench coat that makes him look like a skinny mobster. And of course, I can’t forget his shoes. He has big feet, not abnormal, but large. The thing with James though is that he hates when shoes touch the ends of his toes, so he always buys shoes that are about an inch longer than he needs, giving his whole costume a clown-like feel.
Another of his quirks is that if he feels that he can pull it off, he will always claim the opposite view in a discussion, and argue his side vehemently until the other parties to the conversation either give in or give up. I must admit that this is his most irritating personality quirk, and those who don’t know that he isn’t really serious can take offense. I remember once when he was a child, he asked me what day it was, and I replied that it was Wednesday. He retorted that it was NOT Wednesday, but Tuesday instead. I did a double take and checked the calendar; it was indeed Wednesday. I let my little brother know that he was wrong, and showed him the calendar, and recounted the things that had happened on each of the days since Sunday when we had gone to church. He still insisted that it was Tuesday rather than Wednesday, and of course I wouldn’t back down since I knew I was right. Eventually we both broke down into giggles because of the sheer comedy of our argument.
Today, my brother James has moved to San Fransisco in order to go to culinary school. Even in a town as diverse as San Fransisco, he still comes across as someone who doesn’t mind being himself in any circumstance. I think his sense of self comes from his feeling of assurance that he is correct. As a way of illustration, let me tell you about the time he decided to make a batch of macaroni and cheese. Our family has a favorite recipe for mac and cheese that involves making a cheesy cream sauce with onions and then adding the cooked macaroni and baking the whole thing until it is a delicious, creamy, cheesy, crunchy magnificent concoction that any of us could eat an entire batch of without blinking an eye. So, while making the cream sauce, James mis-read the recipe as calling for eight cups of flour rather than eight tablespoons, which is sixteen times too much flour! The flour is the third ingredient he needed to add, and instead of thinking, ‘hmm, this seems weird, maybe I should re-evaluate,’ he went right on ahead with his recipe. I walked into the kitchen just as he was attempting to “pour” this brick of flour, macaroni, and chunks of cheese (since, of course, they didn’t melt right when mixed with so much flour) into a casserole pan. If I had not stopped him there, he would have baked it and only admitted to his mistake when it came out of the oven inedible. When I asked him why he hadn’t realized that he had made a mistake he told me that he had followed the recipe, and so how could he have made a mistake?
Another amusing facet of my brother’s personality is his use of made up names and words. He has been doing this since he was old enough to talk as a toddler. When I read an email from him, I feel as though I am reading a foreign tongue, as I only recognize half the words. When I ask him what a word means, he replies that it is a portmanteau between two other words that he feels should go together to create a new word that has the meaning he wanted.
I admire my brother’s strength of character, and I am envious of his ability to act as he sees to be correct without regard to the opinion of others. Of course, this tendency can be taken too far, but any good trait when used without moderation can turn sour. Luckily, as my brother has gotten older, he has learned to curb some of his tendencies when appropriate. He even calls me when he has trouble with a recipe and doesn’t know what to do rather than just foraging ahead.

Things are Not What They Seem!

What does Berger mean when he says, "things are not what they seem?"

When Berger says “things are not what they seem,” he is referring to all aspects of our social life, from individual to communal to even world wide social structures such as religion, race or gender.

As way of illustration, think of any person you know fairly well, but not intimately. You may know things about them, but you cannot say that you know everything that goes on in their life, and in fact you would probably be shocked to learn of some of their experiences or beliefs. What is true for the individual is also true for organized groups of people. We all hide behind stereotypes, some gladly, some disappointedly, but if you are able to look past your expectations, then you will be able to see the unique and sometimes shocking truth (or at least slightly closer to the truth).

About three years ago, I had a falling away with my church (which will remain anonymous for now). I had been a member since a child, and so I had never really been worried about looking too hard at what it meant to believe what was taught. The actions that started me down the path of leaving was actually, for the first time, taking a critical, outside look at what was actually being said and taught, and how it matched my own personal values. One of the critical choices I made was to start reading a Jewish translation of the ‘Old Testament’. What had once been something that I had heard many times before became new, and I was able to look at it with new eyes, and realized that what I was reading was not what it had seemed to be when I was still entrenched in my old belief systems.