Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Knowing the population

At any given time there are huge areas of the unknown when it comes to the question, what do various members of our society care about? We have opinion research tools, of course. But we don't really have good answers to any of these questions:
  • How do West Bloomfield teenagers think about their futures?
  • Why do Kenyan truck drivers refrain from the most basic AIDS-prevention techniques?
  • Are skateboarders disaffected from mainstream society?
  • What does it mean when affluent suburban white kids wear hiphop gear?
  • What do laid-off auto workers think about higher education for themselves?
  • How do Mexican gang killers feel about their victims?
These questions fall in the general area of qualitative knowledge of social actors and groups. We want to know in some detail about the subjectivity of the members of these groups -- how they think, what they value, how they perceive the world.  There can be a quantitative side as well -- once we have information about some people in a group we can ask about the distribution of these characteristics over the group.

But here is the key question at the moment: where within the disciplines of the social sciences does inquiry into these questions fall?  And the simple answer is, none of them and parts of all of them. Ethnography is relevant; but anthropologists usually seem to have larger theoretical apples to peel. Political scientists are interested in a small subset of these questions -- basically, they are interested in measuring political attitudes and preferences.  And some branches of sociology have had an interest in this kind of concrete social description -- for example, Erving Goffman; but at present this kind of detailed inquiry into the lived experience of particular individuals and groups doesn't have much prestige in the field. It is hard to see AJS publishing a descriptive study of attitudes and values of West Bloomfield teenagers.

So two things seem to be true. First, there is an important kind of knowledge that we need to have in order to adequately understand society. And second, there doesn't seem to be a discipline in the social sciences that takes on this challenge.

So how should we think about the subjective experience and mental frameworks of a given social group?  A group is defined by some set of characteristics -- people from a certain region ("midwesterners"), people with a certain occupation ("insurance adjustors"), people with a certain national origin ("Irish-Americans"), people from a particular age cohort (Generation X), or people with a certain religion or value scheme ("Protestants," "Populists").  So by construction, members of the group share a few characteristics in common -- the "nominal" characteristics of the group.  But we also know that almost every group displays a great range of diversity with respect to other characteristics -- lifestyle, political attitudes, moral commitments, ...  So how should we think about the problem of coming to better understand the distinctive features of consciousness as well as the range of diversity and similarity among members of the group?  This raises a number of interesting questions.  For example:
  • Are there similarities that members of this group possess over and above the nominal characteristics of the group?  Is there something distinctive about the experience and mentality of Gen X or "The Greatest Generation"?
  • Are some groups more diverse than others with respect to a given set of social characteristics?
  • Is it possible to explain some of the patterns of similarity that are discovered among members of the group?  
Suppose we are interested in K-12 school teachers: what makes them choose this work, what are some of the social backgrounds from which they emerge, how do they feel about their work, are they idealistic or jaded in their work?  How might we approach a subject like this from the point of view of social science research?

One possibility is to approach the task through survey research.  We might design a survey intended to measure attitudes, background, degree of commitment, etc.  The results of the survey can be presented as a set of descriptive statistics for each question, with standard deviations.  We might have a theory of how the questions cluster, and we might classify individuals into sub-groups sharing a cluster of properties.  Further, we might try to identify differences that exist among sub-populations (by race, age, or occupational group, let us say).  And we would probably want to see whether there are interesting correlations among some of the recorded variables.

Another possibility is to approach the task through interviews and qualitative research.  Here the investigator will work with a smaller number of cases; but he/she will get to know individuals well, and will come to see the nuance and detail of the multiple experiences that school teachers have of their work.  Here we might imagine several different kinds of findings:
"There is no typical school teacher; rather, each has a different profile." This researcher may not be able to summarize or analyze his/her findings, but rather needs to provide a descriptive narrative of a series of cases.  This is perhaps the kind of knowledge that Studs Terkel produces (link).  
Or: "A small set of common themes emerge from a number of the cases, so we can begin to classify teachers into a small set of similar groups."
It is also possible to code and aggregate the results of this sort of qualitative research.  This may permit us to discover that there are some broad groupings among the population surveyed.  We might find that there are fairly visible groupings among school teachers, with similar attitudes and commitments among individuals of group A that distinguish them sharply from individuals of group B.  (For example: "Inner city teachers differ significantly from suburban teachers;" "teachers in their 50s differ significantly from teachers in their 30s;" "white and black teacher differ significantly from each other.")  The researcher may then try to arrive at hypotheses about why the A's are so different from the B's: educational background, experience within a certain industry, gender or race characteristics, cohort-specific experiences, differences in the work-place environment.  This represents a slide from qualitative inquiry to quantitative analysis; ethnographic and individual-level investigation is aggregated into analytical categories.  Here the sociologically interesting question is that of social causation: what are the social influences that differently affected the two populations?

The key point here is that individuals have a rather specific socially constituted subjectivity -- a set of mental frameworks, concepts, modes of thinking, emotions, values, and aversions -- that distinguishes them from others.  This subjective framework provides a basis for their actions, choices, and preferences.  We also speculate, often, that there are important similarities in these frameworks within groups in dimensions that distinguish this group from that group.  It appears to be a fundamentally important task for the social sciences, to have means of investigating these empirical realities.  These questions are important, most fundamentally, because they give an indication of why people behave as they do.  And yet the existing disciplines have little interest in pursuing these types of questions.


tkn said...

thx for the rad sk8 pic

tkn said...

on a more serious tip,
i think we all operate based on an assumption or two. some of these are more accurate than others, some are worthy of being weeded out because they are simply not accurate. that is easier said than done but well within the realm of possibility.
i'm interested in the diversity of thought and experience, but also in commonalities, the universal to all human beings. it would be nice to see more efforts to describe the common ground of human experience in more detail,
ie, J. Campbell and mythology, but on a more everyday experience level.