Archive for the ‘Sociology’ Category

The Respectable Man

In Organizations, Poems, Sociology on December 12, 2010 at 3:51 pm

M. Standfast, Kyoto

Editor’s Note: Here is The Respectable Man.  A decade old, but it stand up pretty well, perhaps.

The respectable man
reflects if he can
but the world won’t wait for reflectors
the respectable man
sits on the can
sits on the board of directors

The respectable man
hawks wares to the clan
who cannot tell shit from shinola
the respectable man
sees a water ban
and irrigates crops with a cola

The respectable man
works on his tan
en route to his room at the Hilton
the respectable man
is pimping a plan
with robust tax-giveaways built-in

The respectable man
spits on his hands
and scurries his way up the ladder
the respectable man
looks over the land
and respectfully empties his bladder


the process has a point of view

In Organizations, Poems, Sociology on November 12, 2009 at 9:44 pm

M. Standfast, Kyoto

the process has a point of view
the process has a plan
it consecrates opinion
of the group or of the man

the process can be tampered with
but one must take great pains
to regard the ghouls that process fronts for
ghouls weighted down with chains

each time we wantonly with process toy
one chain process doth loose
if the ghouls become untethered
we have ourselves cooked goose

blood rites, human sacrifice, motions carried
parliamentary procedures of every kind
serve well to prettify men’s base designs
but their rigidity may insult the mind

so by all means make your end run around
the process, subvert the stated order, bring fresh
thinking but beware the ghouls of process
which will claim their pound of flesh

or better yet submit to process and to “the rules”
establish your credentials and sanctify intent
until you see that form is but an empty suit
and process, when respected, can be bent

Image Credit:

Post-structuralism, a Desert Perspective

In Sociology on September 9, 2009 at 10:24 pm

OsmosisD. Hannah, Dubai

Well, me old puritan…in answer to your queries:

Perhaps I was hasty in saying that ‘ground up’ is the basis to post-structuralism, but it is certainly central to it.

Post-structuralism sees discourse as central to discussions of identity. Discourse ‘refers to thoughts, actions or writing that presents particular relationships and are taken as ‘self-evident’ (Paechter in Francis & Skelton 2001). A good example of this in Puritano’s context is the prevailing discourse in Japan that it is a nation of ‘homogenous ethnicity’. This is propagated by politicians, portrayed in Manga and goes without critical comment in most mainstream Japanese press. It is seen as obvious despite the equally obvious fact that other ethnicities exist in Japan. Critical comment must come from foreigners – those who exist outside the discourse, even if they are Japanese. Discourses define behaviour and thought that agrees with the discourse as normal, and that which doesn’t as abnormal, indicating the power relationships behind discourses (you must be a foreigner or traitor to think otherwise). ‘Homogenous ethnicity’ – discourse is grounded in and defined by language.

In this way, post-structuralism borrows from social construction theories in that it allows for discourse to be propagated socially via the institutions around us. It differs however, in that it allows for “human agency…the ability of people to take an active role in their own lives” (Mac Naughton in Yelland 1998). In other words, people will actively take up discourses; they aren’t just implanted by osmosis. In our example, Japan can be shown to be multi-ethnic, but despite this people say it isn’t. Faced with this people may choose to take up an identity that flies in the face of evidence. They must do so because they see value – capital – in doing so (think of how right-wingers are funded and feared). Other disagree with the prevailing discourse, despite the fact its to their detriment to do so (like being targeted by right-wingers and being called foreign apologists/traitors) – they must find capital in doing so too. Social-construction, however, says we automatically take up discourses that we are exposed to and hence can’t explain these anomalies.

This active take up is also my explanation to the idea that ‘ground up’ is central to post-structuralism. Puritano is a reductionist. He believes it all lies in the neurons and their incredible matrix that grows as people grow from day one. Post-structuralism also agrees that people make, break and reinvent their own connections as they grow, are exposed to and make sense in their own way of the prevailing discourses surrounding them. A discourse is thoughts and beliefs described through language. Language changes over time as it reflects thoughts and beliefs. Only people can invent language. Only people can change language. Language is born and carried in our neurons and reflects the connections made in those neurons.

Japan provides another example of this. There used to exist a highly hierarchical society defined by language (eg. Burakumin). As Japan embraced democracy, this idea had to change, and the language changed as well. The language changed to reflect the new egalitarianism, and instead Japan became a country of ‘homogenous ethnicity’. Over time, this too will change as ‘multi-cultural’ enters the Japanese lexicon.

Puritano asks us to answer the question: “If human meaning is not in the patterns of neuronal firing, where is it exactly?” I love it. Where else can it be?

Statement of Intent and Concern: Part III

In Reading, Sociology on June 28, 2009 at 9:57 pm

DSCF4470Matthew Thomas, Kyoto

Concern and Intent #III: System Building

Everything’s connected.  Reading the classics, which do not talk about sunsets, has made many sunsets, in all their colors, intelligible to me.

Fernando Pessoa

I’m behind in my reading.  Stacked in front of me at my desk are the following: Ted Solotaroff’s The Literary Community, Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism, Kate Buford’s Burt Lancaster, Pierre Bourdieu’s Sketch for Self Analysis, Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, Berger and Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality, Edward Said’s Representations of the Intellectual, Gay Talese’s Thy Neighbors Wife, Rory Stewart’s The Places in Between, Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory’s My Dinner with Andre, John Cheever’s collected stories, and Elias Canneti’s Crowds and Power.  As if this was not enough, today I checked out Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents, Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, and Robert Service’s Lenin.  I have also set aside for now, but need to get back to: Francois Cusset’s French Theory, Peter Drucker’s Management, Marx’s Capital, and Seth Lloyd’s Programming the Universe. All of these books are crucial and must be attended to at once.  Moreover, all of these books are connected–and taken in their totality they will add up to something greater than the sum of their parts.  In fact, when incorporated with another hundred or so abandoned books to which I will shortly return, they will help constitute a system through which the universe and all contained in it shall be read.

Or so I tell myself.  I used to finish books in a single sitting; no longer.  According to my reading list for 2009, I have started 36 books and finished only 13 of these.  The remaining 23 range from the nearly finished (Solotaroff and Said) to the barely begun (Lloyd and Talese), but they all have one thing in common–I cannot truly move on with my life and work before these are completed, noted, and blogged about.  Herein the pathology.  In the year 2001 I began a master’s thesis.  The topic was supposed to be Japanese collective memory of the Second World War.  A big topic, surely, but not, perhaps, one which I could not wrap my arms around, even in the artificially constricted form of a thesis (my adviser told me 100, and not more than 120, pages).  220 rough pages later, having encompassed not only the topic directly at hand, but also Aristotle and Augustine, Occam and Kant, Weber and Wittgenstein, sociology and statistics, and a short history of the concept of free will, I foundered.  The thesis ran aground not from lack of something to say, but from a lack of ability to encapsulate and select–all this material seemed deeply relevant, indispensable in fact, but it wasn’t helping me finish the damn thing.

Evitar Zerubavel, in his highly sensible The Clockwork Muse, presents a compelling argument for just getting on with it.  Arguing for a “deromanticization of the writing process” (4), Zerubavel writes that “the problem, unfortunately, is that we often have difficulty letting go of our projects and bringing them to completion {…}  Such perfectionism (also expressed in the compulsive urge to read everything possibly related to our project) may lead us to keep spinning our intellectual wheels and work on the same project indefinitely” (87-88). Zerubavel recommends a micro-managed writing schedule–the “clockwork muse” in fact, whereby we forget about the idea of writing when inspired and instead write on a strict schedule.  “The very notion of a ‘clockwork muse’ may sound somewhat oxymoronic at first given the way we normally associate creativity with spontaneity.  It certainly goes against our traditional romantic image of a writer as someone who forgoes structure in order to accommodate essentially unscheduled outbursts of creative energy.  Yet only those who develop a certain amount of self-discipline actually end up completing theses, dissertations, and books” (98).

Uh huh.  And if one is afflicted by a “compulsive urge to read everything possibly related to our project” when at the same time being categorizable as one who’s passion in life is “theoretical” {as outlined by Eduard Spranger, someone in the grips of the theoretical passion “essentially likes to know that they have explained things better than they have been explained before” (Snyder, 132)}, the scope of necessary reading can reach outstanding proportions.   What I need is a clockwork system for my reading, and then the ability to draw some worthwhile lines.  But then, I just don’t seem cut out for this kind of efficiency.  Three things occur to me: Continue Reading

Statement of Intent and Concern: Part II

In Metaphysics, Organizations, Religion, Sociology on June 16, 2009 at 10:33 pm

Matthew Thomas, Kyoto

Intent and Concern #II: On “role drift”

saul epipharyThis post is the second in my thirty-fifth birthday series, and takes up that sexiest of subjects, “role-drift.”  In this post I will connect Laud Humphreys’ investigation of “the Tearoom Trade,” that is, casual homosexual encounters in public toilets, the initiation process in the United States military, and the conversion of Paul the Apostle.  Those easily offended by sociological explanations of religion, of sexual preference, or of the comradeship among soldiers should cease reading immediately.

Recently, I finished reading a book–which, as my next post will detail, is a somewhat rare occurrence.  The book was Laud Humphreys’ “The Tearoom Trade,” published in 1970.  It concerns men hooking up with other men, usually strangers, in the public restroom facilities in St. Louis, and it is an eye-opening read.  The blurb on the book jacket pretty much tells the story: “Many American men seek impersonal sex in public restrooms.  Called ‘tearooms’ in the argot of the homosexual subculture, these restrooms are accessible to and easily recognized by those who wish to engage in anonymous sexual encounters {…} By passing as deviant, the author was able to engage in systematic observations of homosexual acts in public settings.  Methodologists will be interested {…} in this unusual application of participant-observation strategies.”  Indeed, methodologists everywhere, I can say without hesitation, were and are all ears.  But the odd thing is that Humphreys, married and purportedly straight when he conducted his research, later divorced his wife and came out as gay.

Now, it may not be considered particularly odd that someone, sociologist or no, who spends several months or years in public toilets observing “insertors” and “insertees” would himself come out eventually, and Humphreys’ persistent use of “us” and “we” to refer to the denizens of the restrooms of St. Louis appears, in retrospect, to be something of a “tell.”  Consider, for instance, sentences such as the following: “when a group of us were locked in a restroom and attacked by several youths, we spoke in defense and out of fear {…} This event ruptured the reserve among us and resulted in a series of conversations among those who shared this adventure for several days afterward” (12), and several other similar uses of plural pronouns.  (It may be of interest here that Humphreys and his study of tearooms enjoyed a brief week in the sun a few years ago when Senator Larry Craig of Idaho was arrested in an airport bathroom stall for foot-tapping–Humphreys covered this topic as well, making clear that foot-tapping was, in 1970, a well-established method of making contact from stall to stall, and already in use by police decoys so many decades ago (20, 87).)

Indeed, the whole study is fascinating, and peppered with wonderfully matter-of-fact passages such as: “There is a great deal of difference in the volumes of homosexual activity that these accommodations shelter.  In some, one might wait for months before observing a deviant act.  In others, the volume approaches orgiastic dimensions.  One summer afternoon, for instance, I witnessed twenty acts of fellatio is the course of an hour while waiting out a thunderstorm in a tearoom.  For one who wishes to participate in (or study) such activity, the primary consideration is one of finding where the action is” (6) (alert readers will recognize the influence of Erving Goffman here; Goffman’s study of gambling establishments is titled “Where the Action Is”).  But the passage which really caught my attention deals with what Humphreys calls “role instability” or “role drift.”  He makes two major points; i) those who start out pitching tend to end up catching; “It appears that, during the career of any one participant, the role of insertor tends to be transposed into that of insertee” (55) (Humphreys attributes this tendency to “the aging crisis” common to tearoom participants); ii) “If {straights} remain exposed ‘too long’ to the action, they cease to operate as straights” (56).  Humphreys here is not referring to men who one day, by accident, may wander into an operational tearoom, but rather to members of the parks department or vice squad who, over time, may be exposed to a wider swath of tearoom activity.  Here is the key passage:

“When some communication continues to exist, parents tend to be ‘turned on’ by their pot-smoking offspring.  Spectators tend to be drawn into mob action, and kibitzers into card games.  Even police may adopt the roles they are assigned to eliminate:

‘It is a well-known phenomenon that when officers are left too long on the vice-squad–the maximum allowable at  any one time being four to five years–they begin to ‘go over’, adopting the behaviorisms and mores 0f the criminals with whom they are dealing, and shifting their primary allegiance'” (Here, Humphreys is quoting from Elliot Liebow’s Tally’s Corner from 1967.  My emphasis). Continue Reading

Statement of Intent and Concern on the Occasion of my Thirty-Fifth Birthday: Part I

In Life as Lived, Organizations, Sociology on June 13, 2009 at 10:02 pm

fff-blackMatthew Thomas, Kyoto

Intent and Concern #I: Berger and Luckmann on Typification and Reification

Everything has a face, forms, sounds and colours: these are just appearances.  They are just forms and colours, and nothing more.  However, everything arises from what is formless and descends into that which is changeless.  If you grasp and follow this, using it to the full, nothing can stand in your way.

Chuang Tzu

This is the first in a projected series of posts which will represent an attempt on my part to synthesize a variety of theoretical and practical concerns that confront me as I approach thirty-five.  This post will begin with Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality, a book we have looked at before here on Sympathies.  I have re-posted the original post so that readers can familiarize themselves with the work.

A good deal of the writing on this blog has taken as its theme the relationship between the individual and the institution, and we have seen various attempts to come to terms with the ideal stance of one who, as we all do, exists within the grasp of institutionalization.  In The Social Construction of Reality, Berger and Luckmann spend 45 pages on the topic of institutionalization, and what they have to say provides me with my jumping off point.  They make the point that while man (and yes, The Social Construction of Reality, published in 1966, uses the outdated gender-specific catch-all term for humanity), makes his world, he is given to losing sight of this and projecting (“reifying”) aspects of the social world so that they are perceived as entirely external and beyond his control.  “Man’s self-production is always, and of necessity, a social enterprise.  Men together produce a human environment, with the totality of its socio-cultural and psychological formations” (51), but, being prone to reification, they will sometimes “{apprehend} the products of human activity as if there were something else than human products–such as facts of nature, results of cosmic law, or manifestations of divine will.  Reification implies that man is capable of forgetting his own authorship of the human world {and experiencing it} as a strange facticity, {…} over which he has no control” (89).

When mis-apprehending (social) reality as something other than the product of his own action and consciousness, he forgets that “the social world was made by men–and, therefore, can be remade by them,” but, ironically, “reification is a modality of consciousness {…} Even when apprehending the world in reified terms, man continues to produce it” (89).

Even when apprehending the world in reified terms, man continues to produce it. I would like to extrapolate this to mean that the perception of sedimented, externally controlled or created, facticity continually creates the very facticity in question.  Put slightly differently, the denial of agency diminishes, uncreates, free-will, while the exercise of free-will depends in large part, perhaps entirely, on the strength of one’s belief in it.

Now, this is not to argue that reification is simply false-consciousness, or that groups within society do not go to considerable trouble to perpetuate and legitimate reification of their activities.  Berger and Luckmann make this quite clear in their analysis of what they call “socially segregated subuniverses of meaning” such as “Hindu castes, the Chinese literary bureaucracy, or the priestly coteries of ancient Egypt” (85), not to mention lawyers, doctors, television pundits, university English departments.  They write that subuniverses  “become esoteric enclaves {…} to all but those who have been properly initiated into their mysteries {…} The outsiders have to be kept out {but} If the subuniverse requires various special privileges and recognitions from the larger society, there is the problem of keeping out the outsiders and at the same time having them acknowledge the legitimacy of this procedure.  This is done through various techniques of intimidation {…} mystification and, generally, the manipulation of prestige symbols” (87).

And generally the manipulation of prestige symbols. Indeed.  Those who engage, consciously or unconsciously, in the manipulation of prestige symbols are, in Berger and Luckmann’s language, involved in creating a “typification.”  The acceptance of typifications, in turn, sediments social facticity and brings into being a taken-for-grantedness in the performance of social actors. Continue Reading

On Berger and Luckmann

In Sociology on June 13, 2009 at 10:00 am

Matthew Thomas, Kyoto

This post is a precursor to a more detailed commentary on Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s “The Social Construction of Reality,” and introduces the work through my favorite quote therein:

“In an important way all, or at least most, of the others encountered by the individual in everyday life serve to reaffirm his subjective reality.  This occurs even in a situation as ‘non-significant’ as riding on a commuter train.  The individual may not know anyone on the train and may speak to no one.  All the same, the crowd of fellow-commuters reaffirms the basic structure of everyday life.  By their overall conduct the fellow-commuters extract the individual from the tenuous reality of early-morning grogginess and proclaim to him in no uncertain terms that the world consists of earnest men going to work, of responsibility and schedules, of the New Haven Railroad and the New York Times.  The last, of course, reaffirms the widest co-ordinates of the individual’s reality.  From the weather report to the help-wanted ads it assures him that he is, indeed, in the most real world possible.  Concomitantly, it affirms the less-than-real status of the sinister ecstasies experienced before breakfast–the alien shape of allegedly familiar objects upon waking from a disturbing dream, the shock of non-recognition of one’s own face in the bathroom mirror, the unspeakable suspicion a little later that one’s wife and children are mysterious strangers. Most individuals susceptible to such metaphysical terrors manage to exorcise them to a degree in the course of their rigidly performed morning rituals, so that the reality of everyday life is at least gingerly established by the time they step out of their front door.  But the reality begins to be fairly reliable only in the anonymous community of the commuter train.  It attains massivity as the train pulls into Grand Central Station.  Ergo sum, the individual can now murmur to himself, and proceed to the office wide-awake and self-assured” (149-150).

Berger and Luckmann mean here that the reality of being in society is daily recreated and fortified through contact with society through one’s morning routine.  The idea here is widely applicable despite Berger and Luckmann’s reliance on the somehow comic, stereotypical, John Cheever-esque New England businessman as representative of all humankind.  But, indeed, and again pace Cheever, if any one social type were to fall prey to metaphysical terrors it may well be our passenger on the New Haven Railroad.  More to the point, what fascinates here is the idea that our identity as an able participant in social processes requires a kind of patching together through ritual and regularity, and that, by extension, said identity emerges from sleep each morning somewhat fractured, spotty, several cards short of a full deck. 

The key word in the quoted paragraph is, I think, “massivity.”  Upon waking, emerging from dreams, “sinister ecstasies,” I check the time and stumble to the shower; the social world, “reality,” looms, but remains as yet thin and somewhat unbelievable. Thinking forward to the social being that in past days I have been, and all of the actions that accompany simply being in the world, I perceive a seemingly unbridgeable gap between the present “me” and the “me” that carries out these actions.  But, after coffee (chemical stimulus), dressing for work (confinement and limitation disguised by fashion as choice and decision), bidding goodbye to family (reinforcing responsibility and tapping into eons of pater familias symbolism), boarding the train (committing oneself to forward motion toward that location where sociability will be unavoidable), and recognizing fellow riders, nameless as they may remain, the full weight of the role that one will be expected to play begins, once again, to come home. Continue reading

Minor Intellectuals Further Theorize About Selling Out Here

In Organizations, Sociology on February 17, 2009 at 11:59 pm

Editor’s Note: It is nice to see the affinity for the fascinating subject of sartorial conformism on the part of sympathists.  This post is organized as a dialogue, made up of comments to previous posts as well as material written expressly for the colloquy.

Tim Chanecka, Kyoto

Interesting observations, Mr. Inch, and good recollection as well. I would point out further that as one who shared that office with you and MT, it always seemed to me that for most of the rest of us (although if you’ll recall, I also seasonally wore a tie) the choice not to wear a tie was also an act of rebellion against the cultural norm that we were thrust into. In other words, an act of rebellion against a culture that insisted that anything less than a necktie was less than professional. Some of us, I believe you would be included in that group, wanted to be taken seriously as professionals for what we DID, not the packaging in which we did it. I guess that would skew quite seriously the idea that we could become something which we were not by pretending to be it.

At any rate, for me anyway, the wearing o’ the tie has become de rigueur, perhaps for the same reasons MT did and still does it, perhaps because I am in a culture which I cannot change, so I have changed my practices to be more in step with it. It still comes off before I even get out the door in the evening, however.

Dean Williams, Kyoto

What about MY sartorial choices? Something wrong with suspenders and bow ties? It was me, not the slim one, who read and took to heart the self-help smash, “Dress for Success–If You Want to be a Circus Clown.”

Matthew Thomas, Kyoto

Mr. Inch’s wonderfully ambivalent post deserves a full response, and, at the risk of typecasting Sympathies as a blog focusing on the minutia of social practice, will receive one. For the moment, I would only add that Puritano’s ability to pull off the circus clown look is wholly dependent on the projection of an identity that supports the fashion in question. For those many of us yet to acquire to ability to turn on and turn off more or less at will what for lack of a better word can only be called “charisma”–a conventional, even conservative professional appearance may indeed act as a kind of catalyst through which a measure of social effectiveness may be harnessed. I think that the ambivalence, perhaps even the hint of insecurity, that animates Andrew’s post is precisely born of his uncertainty about how far charisma, charm, and personality can take before he too will need to rethink his rebel pose, his “alternative (…) perhaps less respect-able but nonetheless conformist, relationship to the rules and rituals that regulated life in that particular setting,” and find it in himself to don the noose.

Andrew Inch, United Kingdom

Fascinating stuff, Mr Thomas.  Goffman does indeed provide interesting means for thinking about the self and identity.  I think, however, that in part you have misinterpreted the roots of my ambivalence, and in so doing attribute something rather different to my post than I intended Continue Reading