Villains, Victims, and Verstehen
I studied drama as an undergraduate, and in one class I remember learning about playing villains. No one sees him or herself as a villain, we learned, and the person portraying such a character should figure out their motivation. Does the character feel like they have been wronged and are thus justified in seeking revenge? Do they feel passionate about a cause that the other characters view differently? Every character—and most people—views themselves as good, maybe even heroic sometimes, and this is no different for roles that appear to be obvious villains.
Likewise, social scientists are very interested in learning more about people’s perceptions of the world around them. Max Weber, one of the key thinkers in sociology, noted the importance of verstehen, or understanding the people we study.
But most of the time, we are studying people who are not necessarily villains or victims. Ordinary people might not be characters in a blockbuster action-adventure or drama, but are also important to understand. (I find everyday people more interesting, thus my switch from drama to sociology!) Social scientists aren’t just interested in what people do, as we might be when watching a movie or a play, but in how they make sense of the world. The back-story that actors figure out in their minds becomes the front story for social scientists.
In today’s polarized political climate, focusing on verstehen is not just important for social scientists, but the public more generally.
Just as a villain in a novel might view the heroine as the real villain, understanding people’s differing worldviews might help explain why one person’s hero is another person’s villain. Different racial/ethnic groups might see themselves as the victims of persecution, or fail to see how another group experiences unequal access to resources that they feel they are lacking.
Of course social scientists are interested in more than people’s opinions about the world around them; we also study objectively defined facts. Yes, the idea of facts and truth (or multiple truths) can lead to philosophical debates, but there are some things that are not just a matter of perception. Even if I feel 25, and others believe me if I tell them I am 25, my birth certificate indicates that I am most certainly not 25 years old.
The gap between perception and identifiable facts is also something that social scientists take interest in. What might motivate someone to deny the veracity of a particular set of facts? How might their experiences, social setting, and position within the broader society lead them to a particular viewpoint? Why might people observe the same event and have very different interpretations of that event?
Recently, sociologists have studied the perspectives of people living in rural and some suburban areas to better understand the political divide between many of them and many of those living in urban areas. Arlie Hochschild’s research for her book, Strangers in their Own Land, draws on Weber’s concept of verstehen. To better understand the perspectives of people who support the Tea Party movement, she spent five years talking with people whose world views are quite different from her own. In so doing, she lets the reader into their homes (as they often did for her), to better understand how they came to support particular political perspectives and reject others.
Sociologist Robert Wuthnow has written many books on religious life and rural America; he conducted a similar study for his book The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America, where he interviewed hundreds of people to understand the anger and mistrust many feel towards the federal government.
The point of research like that undertaken by Hochschild and Wuthnow is not to convince the reader that their informants are right or wrong, only to better understand how they make sense of the world. Social media has made it easy to take sides, get angry, argue, and insult people with whom we disagree. Both of these books were published at a time when we could use a little more verstehen.
Verstehen helps us see others with very different life experiences and perspectives as more complex than just the dehumanizing labels that get placed on people with whom we disagree. Understanding others’ points of view makes it more difficult to see people with different viewpoints as villains.