Friday, October 30, 2009

there ain't no escaping it

I would argue that any human being that has been subjected to a socialization process can never move beyond social control. This is an unavoidable outcome of living in groups and the fundamental requirement of having to learn things in order to survive. Learning is the same as social control...both are about behavior change in response to group pressures/forces/dynamics. Couple those dynamics with the educational system we have today and IMO, it is evident that there is no way to move beyond social control -- this is why I use the example of being nude in the summer. Even if someone did this, I would hazard a guess that s/he would have some kind of physiological response to being nude in public. I think we would characterize that physiological response as "shame" or "embarrassment" -- both are evidence of having been raised among other people; both are internalized mechanisms of social control.

I am in favor of students learning through inquiry and discovery -- both of these processes and their respective outcomes are not asocial; they both require some kind of context. As soon as we include a context for them to occur, we are back to living in groups, being consistently and unavoidably subject to social control. Don't forget that everyone engages in social control...students, professors, teachers, etc.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The bible, science, and evolution..oh my!

my post to a sociology list

Couple of responses...If you read my initial email on this topic, I don't say that any traditional story should be/is accepted as source material for scientific inquiries. To be sure, myths, fables, fairy tales, etc., are just more data for analysis from a sociological perspective.

I also know that the scientific method, too, is subject to the same kind of analysis, i.e., it is behavior that humans engage in (both verbal and non-verbal) and, as such is available for analysis. I say this to acknowledge that although I endorse its methods, standards, etc., I am very much aware that the knowledge produced by it is not, "the truth," but is provisional. I think that we all agree that any scientific inquiry has limitations, no one claims that it does not. Hence, I am quite comfortable telling students that although there are limitations, this is the best method that we have come up with, so far, that permits the pragmatic utilization of knowledge, i.e., we use the knowledge developed through the scientific method and it appears to work as anticipated...planes do fly reliably. Much of the knowledge produced by the scientific method has proven to be both reliable and durable; note that these are some pragmatic criteria for the establishment of something called, "truth" -- if it works, it is true. Pragmatism does not provide evidence of an ontological reality, however and from a human standpoint, that seems to be just fine.

As to evolution then, I tell students that based on the methods of science, the theory is supported by the evidence. I remind them that the methods used to establish evolution as a reliably plausible explanation for genetic change and stability are the same methods that are used to develop life-saving medications. So, if they reject evolution because it is "only a theory" and it is not supported by the facts, then I challenge them to wonder why they don't reject the use of medications for the same reasons. Medical researchers are still not convinced about the causes of many diseases (just read the other day in New Scientist that there are some who are looking at the evidence that OCD, schizophrenia and several other, seemingly well-understood biological processes, might be caused by viruses), but they continue to develop interventions, based on the empirical knowledge that they have so far about diseases and although treatments are not perfect (i.e., they do not rid the person of the disease in many cases), they do provide relief, amelioration, etc.

RE: offending someone's faith...First, I just think it is wrong for me to use my authority (which is there whether I want it to be or not -- basic sociology, yes?) to tell them that they are wrong about what they believe. Hell, most Americans think that something called, "America" is a real thing, despite the lack of empirical evidence for its existence (consider how many have given their lives because of it. I especially am not going to tell students that they might, or that their loved ones have, given their time, energy, sacrifice, lives for a "social construction." Waaay to immoral for me). Heck, I bet that there are some on this list who firmly believe in "America." This goes back to the previous discussion about "shock and awe" in the classroom. I do shock, not because I want to shock people, but because empirical findings ARE shocking. I see my role to introduce students to the empirical evidence (after explaining to them the "rules" for the scientific method), however shocking it might be, and to help them make sense of it sociologically. If they choose to believe differently as a result, so be it. If they reject my explanations for the evidence, so be it. Not my role to convince them of the supremacy of knowledge based on science because of the reasons stated above.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

ignorance truly is a social disease

sent this to a sociology list in response to a colleague getting some grief about using "upsetting" material in the classroom...

I have to admit that I find it odd that anyone would suggest that any practitioner within a scientific discipline would employ specific pedagogical techniques designed to "shock or upset" -- sounds like your Dean is confusing reporting scientific information in creative ways with the idiocy that passes as substantive commentary in the media (think Glenn Beck et al).

I find it particularly ironic that a biologist would question (or characterize it as upsetting or shocking) the utilization of a heterosexuality questionnaire to point out how sexual orientation is entirely a human creation. Any biologist knows that "sexual orientation" in any species is a non-starter -- there are many species that display "hetero-, homo- and bi-" sexual orientations (for whatever those ridiculous characterizations are worth), why would humans (since we are animals) be any different? Many species are hermaphroditic...would a questionnaire designed to inquire about reproductive organs within a human population be considered shocking or upsetting? I am sure it would...but that isn't the issue. The issue is that we present scientific data/findings since we are part of the "reality-based community" and unfortunately, many students, parents, administrators, etc., have a hard time accepting social-biological reality.

Ignorance is a deadly social disease, IMO.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

It is all so disturbingly simple...

I approach the discussion of social inequality by providing a fairly simple definition that seems to permit most, if not all students, the ability to grasp the meaning without any personal association. It is a blend of several different concepts that are covered within our discipline:

Social inequality is the categorization and ranking of people that result in an unequal distribution of valuable social resources.

Starting here, I can then discuss and demonstrate how this process results in differential life outcomes based on a person's categories and ranking(s). I bring in real-world examples that, in all likelihood, DO result in personal associations, but this is done in the context of discussing inequality as an observable social reality VS something someone should feel ashamed and/or guilty about. Furthermore, I tell them that part of our job as sociologists is to observe this phenomenon and report our observations to the public; it is then THEIR decision to do something about it or not. I also point out that we have no (or very little; hunter-gatherer societies, perhaps) observations on what an equal distribution of social resources produces in terms of life outcomes, so we don't really know what difference it would make. I do point out what we do know about the impact of the unequal distribution in terms of human suffering and achievement, however.

Now, when I work as an applied sociologist (as opposed to a "professor" of sociology), I adhere to humanistic principles and strongly advocate for a more equal distribution of resources. I do my best to keep the two roles discursively separated, though, when I am in front of a class.