November 04, 2013

Sociology for Storytellers

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

Sociology courses and concepts are not just for people looking to become sociologists. I wrote about the diversity of the sociology major recently, and mentioned that journalists and even novelists can benefit from a degree in sociology. How can storytellers enhance their skills by learning about sociology?

Understand characters whose backgrounds are different from your own

Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, people drive the stories we tell. Often characters come off as one-dimensional if we are working from only superficial knowledge about people whose lives are significantly different from our own. Sociology courses that examine issues of race, gender, and socio-economic status are great tools to learn about what it is like to be part of a group other than our own.

Many sociologists use ethnography in their research, a qualitative method that requires a researcher to spend an extended period of time in the lived environment of the people they study. Back in 2008, I blogged about the similarities and differences between sociology and journalism. Ethnography shares some similarities with in-depth reporting; good journalists and ethnographers both strive to communicate the perspectives of their subjects and share their everyday realities with readers.

Writers who plan to conduct interviews would benefit from learning more about ethnography, in-depth interviews and the ways in which sociologists interpret the findings from talking with their informants. For example, fiction writers who conduct ethnography or just read the results of ethnographic studies will learn about a community or culture that they had never been part of, providing more background information if they want to include characters from those backgrounds in their work.

2.       Learn about the broader contexts that shape the choices individuals make

Students of sociology learn about the meaning and importance of social structure, the way in which the economy, politics, history, and social changes impact our lives. To make fiction characters more believable and our nonfiction subjects more understandable, it is important to provide readers with their broader social context.

For instance, if we are writing about someone who is homeless, we would want to know more than just about that individual. If they recently lost their home, what factors led up to this event? How common is it in their community? Are the costs of apartment living out of reach? What factors might complicate their chances of finding work, such as the loss of a major industry in their region? If they suffer from mental health issues—either as a cause or result of their housing status—what resources are readily available to them?

In fiction, we often learn of a character’s “backstory,” or relevant events that precede the narrative. The broader context is akin to the “surround story,” or issues that impact individuals in the past, present, and future, in ways that our readers might not otherwise know about.

3.       Inform your readers about often misunderstood social realities

For sociologists, the “surround story” is central to our work. We might use stories of individual experiences with the goal of illustrating a common experience based on our research. Sometimes these findings are not well understood by the general public.

For instance, many people might not understand how people become homeless, beyond presuming an individual made poor choices. The struggles of people in poverty, housed or not, may not be obvious to people who have never encountered others in this predicament. Sociological findings on a number of issues, from poverty to changes in families, crime and experiences in the juvenile or criminal justice system, will add a great deal to the kinds of stories that we often hear about in popular culture.

Social institutions like medicine, education, and the criminal justice system provide the backdrop for many television dramas. Understanding how large organizations work—and communicating about them to viewers or readers—provide important information not just about characters, but about our own everyday lives.

Above all else, sociology helps us learn to ask critical questions about both individuals and their broader context. What factors shape an individual’s life chances? How do changes in policies and laws impact people’s daily lives? Is this person’s experience typical, or anomalous?

Learning about sociology not only enhances a writer’s ability to tell interesting stories, it also helps us tell stories that will have a powerful impact on those who read them. Good writing is both about learning something new and learning something about ourselves.

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Comments

As you touched on, I believe that storytelling (in all forms) plays a dominant role in the learning, growing, and accepting of our own cultural identities. I was born into a complicated family; then again, who isn’t? My father is of Angelo-Saxon decent and fathered a child (my half-sister, Dena) with his first wife. My mother, on the other hand, is Mexican and Puerto Rican. Together they had my older brother Christian and seven years later I unexpectedly entered the world. Up until then neither one of my parent’s families had ever married—let alone reproduced with—someone outside of their race. Growing up I felt disconnected and confused about my race. What was I? Who was I? And where could I begin to find those answers? Looking back now I realize the key to understanding my world and myself better could be achieved through sociological exploration. Great article!

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