February 14, 2017

Creativity and Sociology

WynnBy Jonathan Wynn

Are you new to sociology? If you are, you might think ”creativity” and “sociology” are words that don’t go together. In introduction to sociology classes, the texts we read seem to arrive from on high as if tablets of stone from Mt. Sinai. Some of what you read might, indeed, seem to be dry-as-dust. But I would like to convince you that each concept that read about, every theory or idea, is the result of some whimsy, some poetry.

Sociology is a vibrant and lively field, and thinking sociologically requires imagination and inventiveness at every stage: from hypothesizing and theorizing, to writing and teaching. (In reviewing my earlier, ten metaphors blog post, there is absolutely some creativity that is at work in those examples!) Generating new ideas, thinking about things in new and exciting ways is the cornerstone of all scientific work, not just sociology.

Here’s a well-known riff: In a methods book by Charles Lave and Jim March, the authors offer a question. “Why,” they ask, “are college football players considered dumb?” Now, you could think of this as a routine question, but it’s also a puzzle in need of some creative explanation.

Well, they wonder, this perspective could exist for several reasons. One is that football players don’t actually have much time to study. Or it could be that they gain status and satisfaction from one area of their lives (football) and have less need to expend energy on another (schooling). It could be that other students are jealous of their success, and just perceive them as being dumb.

In discussing this exercise in “Theorizing in Sociology and Social Science,” Richard Swedberg recalls a claim from a theory book, Arthur Stinchcombe’s Constructing Social Theories: “a student who has difficulty thinking of at least three sensible explanations for any correlation that he is really interested in should probably choose another profession” (1968: 13).

Swedberg goes on to make the point that thinking through ideas is a deeply creative process. He distinguishes theory (i.e., the things that you read in your books) and theorizing (i.e., the process of sparking theoretical imagination). Last semester, for example, we were talking about Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s idea of color-blind racism and started to think about how it might relate to other social identities and situations.

Citing mischievous wordsmiths like Erving Goffman and Sigmund Freud, Swedberg encourages free association and play as important parts of developing ideas and theories. He offers a few tricks, like “pluralizing a concept” (e.g., make capitalisms out of capitalism), “making nouns into verbs” and “making verbs into relationships” (e.g., for Marx, capital was a social relationship). As another inspiration, in his fabulous essay “On Intellectual Craftsmanship” (the appendix of The Sociological Imagination) C. Wright Mills, details how to keep meticulous files on readings, ideas, and theories on a series of note cards, and that sparking your sociological imagination requires a kind of “playfulness.” He encourages readers to turn over their files to let them scatter on the floor to see what new order and connections can be made. This, in his words, “invite[s] innovation.”

I’ll add two more ideas to spark some innovation.

One is to “sociologicify” an everyday word—take a commonplace word or phrase and create a definition for it. Goffman was a master of this (e.g., in Stigma, using “the wise” to describe people who recognize subtle subcultural symbols and codes), but it’s pretty commonplace. Think of, for example, the idea of bridging.

I bet you do my second suggestion all the time in your extra-curricular lives: create new words by tweaking or combining old ones. My friends and I, for example, often use the non-word “unvitation” (thanks, Seinfeld!) which we use to describe what happens when someone sends an invitation too late for someone to actually accept. “Portmanteaus”—a term from Lewis Carroll—are non-words comprised of two words, giving a new meaning from the two (e.g., Breakfast + lunch = brunch). You likely use all sorts of these new words, like frienemy and bromance.

Each new word that is created illuminates a social relationship in a new way or points to some phenomena worthy of our attention. Take, as another example, “Mansplaining.” This is a great new word, because it gets at the heart of a central gender dynamic: men explaining something to a woman who they have incorrectly assumed doesn’t understand it.

This was coined by the brilliant essayist Rebecca Solnit, who got into an argument with a man at a dinner party over an article that turned out to be written by her. (Here is a recent example of a man explaining space to a woman who was literally a NASA astronaut currently in space!) This has spawned a whole set of ‘splaining words, like “whitesplaining” (e.g., Bon Appétit magazine just got in hot water for having a white man explain Pho).

Publishing primarily qualitative and theoretical sociology, I often kid myself into believing that creativity and innovation are just for scholars like myself. I will read more quantitative work and feel that it is a little too monotonous as papers tend to fall into a familiar structure. This is, however, a huge mistake. My colleague, James Kitts, for example, does some fantastic theorizing about how to think of social network analyses in creative ways.

What moments of sociological creativity do you see?

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