June 13, 2011

Sociological Memoirs

KS_2010aBy Karen Sternheimer

clip_image002If you have taken a sociology class, you might wonder what led your professor to become a sociologist and to study the topics that they study. There is usually an interesting story behind their choices. A handful of sociologists have written memoirs that help us connect the relationship between their past experiences and research.

For instance, sociologist Dalton Conley has studied issues of socioeconomic and racial inequalities. In his memoir, Honky, he writes about his childhood experiences as a white person growing up in a mostly black and Latino housing project in New York. While for most people whiteness is invisible, as is the privilege that can go along with it, Conley was constantly aware of what it meant to be white as a young child.

He recounts his experience of an elementary school teacher who would hit other children’s knuckles with a ruler if they misbehaved but never his. A meeting with his mother in the principal’s office revealed why the others were subject to this treatment but he was not: the Latino principal presumed that because Conley was white his parents would not allow corporal punishment, while the African American and Latino parents would. This and other experiences would lead Conley to sharpen his interest and awareness of the importance of race and class.

clip_image004While feeling like an outsider might have inspired Conley and many others to become sociologists, Michael Messner writes of the many male bonding experiences he had with his father and grandfather while growing up. Known for his work on masculinity and sport, Messner writes of a childhood experience many people could likely relate to: learning to hunt. In King of the Wild Suburb: A Memoir of Fathers, Sons, and Guns, Messner describes how guns and hunting rites were about more than just killing game; they also created spaces of intimacy between men. The middle of the twentieth century was a time when there were few socially sanctioned ways for fathers and sons to bond outside of hunting and sports, which were (and still are) central in many men’s relationships.

King of the Wild Suburb explores Messner’s growing ambivalence about hunting and guns, culminating in his decision as a college student to accompany his father and grandfather on a hunting trip but not to kill anything. Unlike contemporary debates about guns, violence, and masculinity, Messner’s personal experiences help us understand the issues in a more nuanced way. In our politically polarized era, we are often encouraged to staunchly defend one “side” of debates about guns. But by understanding these men better, we understand the complexities of masculinity within each of their generational contexts.

Messner describes how as a young adult he felt more enlightened about masculinity than his father, a naval officer and beloved high school basketball coach. Not only was he vocal about his opposition to the Vietnam War, for a time he also rejected organized sports—one of the central connections he shared with his father. As often happens with many parents and children, these sharp edges softened with time.

Unlike traditional research, where scholars often seek to draw specific conclusions about their findings, memoirs require the results to stay complicated and multifaceted--the way life actually is. Resistance is one of the biggest challenges to learning about the sociological approach to thinking about race, class, and gender. By asking us to think about these concepts, in some way we might come to the conclusion that something we—or our parents—did, thought, or said was wrong.

These two memoirs help us get beyond this challenge through the authors’ honesty about their own conflicts. Conley concedes that once he was able to move to an elementary school in a more affluent neighborhood he felt a bit superior to his neighbors. And although Messner remains a pacifist, he acknowledges the sentimental value guns have had in his family, and he says he will pass down the family collection to his own sons someday.

In reality, all of us share in these complicated feelings and realities regarding the power and privilege of race, class, and gender. Both of these books are good starting points in any complex discussion of the issues. More importantly, they encourage us to think critically about our own histories and understand the sociological meanings in our own lives.


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Yes!.. I would also like to listen the history in sociology a lot when my professor teaches. Because we can know that many interesting stories some of them are like adventures.

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