In the many meetings I attend at school, I often notice people saying things like, “in my previous life, …” or “where I used to work, …” to give examples of why or how things are done. It often annoys me since the rest of us weren’t there to know what the heck they are talking about so the connection to our present situations is lost on most of us.
I thought of this today when I also realized that one of my co-workers reminds me of someone I used to work with – thus whenever I encounter my current friend, I tend to think about my former friend. I find myself expecting the person in front of me to act like my previous friend.
These situations are related: both indicate the way that we human beings make sense of the world. We compare. We generalize. We try to categorize things so that we can make sense of them.
The comparisons of our present with former situations help us navigate situations that can be murky at best.
Most recently, I’ve heard these “where I used to work . . .” remarks in meetings about how to get through the current budget crisis as a publicly funded institution of higher education – a situation with few guideposts that make any sense. We are trying to make good decisions using what we have learned from previous situations. (The annoyance I felt was probably more related to the frustrating situation than the use of such language.)
We learn by linking what we encounter in the present to past experiences. As we get older, this process deepens and gets richer as we have more experiences to call upon. When we are younger, encountering new things is exciting, scary, and confusing since we don’t have much for comparison. As we age, we accumulate experiences and those experiences gradually shape us into the people we become.
This may explain why older people often say, “In my day, …” or spend so much time telling stories about what they have experienced. They can see the connections (or they just like to reminisce) but they may not always do in a way that seems fast or interesting enough to their younger listeners.
Such comparisons can also lock us into a narrow way of seeing the world. When my current co-worker reminds me of my previous co-worker, I try not to mention this out loud or to assume anything about their behavior or other characteristics. Even if they do remind me of each other, they are very different people.
Over-generalizing is, of course, a problem, as it is the very definition of stereotyping and leads to making unfair judgments about people based on ideas about entire groups.
Gaining perspective is important; it can help us make sense of things . Sociology and other sciences can help us attain perspective about things we don’t understand.. Science uses theories to guide our inquiry and our effort to better understand phenomena. Theories can help us compare empirical realities so that we can test the theory and how well it explains what goes on.
Whether we use them in daily life or in scientific studies, the limitations of such frameworks include the danger that by letting our perspective be guided one way we may not notice other possibilities. If you only use one theory or one point of view, you might miss some other important connection or explanation.
People who see the world only through their own experiences may miss opportunities to make new memories or have new experiences.
Thus, in sociology (and other sciences), it is crucial to try on different perspectives, to use different theories to see the same situation and identify different yet equally legitimate and viable explanations.
Looking at the world only through just one theoretical perspective (such as a Marxian, Parsonian , or feminist perspective), one cannot see the contributions of the others. I have great appreciation for Weber's theoretical approach because he attempted to not just debate with Marx’s theories, but he set about to look more widely. His theories, informed as they are by his reading of history, are of course partial, yet they dealt with many different levels of society, from examining the nature of authority to the spirit of capitalism.
It is more difficult for everyday people to do this. As we accumulate experiences, we have certain habits and perspectives that feel more comfortable to us. We are often driven to narrow our perspective rather than try out new points of view. This is how we perpetuate the status quo, but it is also how we blind ourselves to the realities of others.
Sociologist Jessie Bernard studied so-called “his and hers” marriages, where the husband and wife have very different views of the same relationship. Children who grow up in the same family don’t often have the same experience or memories. When some creature is cloned, it will not grow up to be an identical copy of the original since its experiences will be very different.
Everyone’s perspective is shaped by a number of things, not the least of which are the experiences they have as individuals. Partial or selective perception also plays a part since there is no way we can pay attention to everything that happens around us. Thus the child who remembers their parent complimenting them may have a different opinion on their childhood than their sibling who remembers their parent scolding them. The parent probably complimented and scolded them both yet each person remembers different things.
The perspectives are similar to Goffman’s concept of frames and his frame analysis. Goffman's concept of frame analysis. We use conceptual frames to make sense of the world and to define society and ourselves.
It seems that if things are happening in society that we don’t understand or agree with, using as many logical perspectives as possible to explain such things is a good idea. While we can’t always effectively use our own experiences to make sense of what goes on around us, we can use theories and historical patterns to better enlighten us.
For example, comparing the current debate over marriage rights to past marriage rights debates can illuminate how our laws and policies influence and relate to power in society. Getting out of our own (narrow) perspectives about how life works by attempting to see the world through another set of eyes can help our society serve all of its members rather than just a few.