July 13, 2008

Do Sociologists all Look Alike? Homogeneity and Heterogeneity

author_sally By Sally Raskoff

I just returned from a sociology conference where I noticed, as I do every time I attend, that sociologists tend to look alike. When I go out into the city to walk and revive my body from the tedium of sitting too long in the meeting, I watch the people I pass on the street. Although I take off my conference name badge when I do this, as do most of the other sociologists, many of us can tell when we pass someone who else is a meeting escapee even if we don’t know the person. In the meeting itself or in the hotel public areas, it is also easy to identify the sociologists among the other hotel patrons. 

This is true for people in most occupational groups. We tend to look like people who do the same job even if our bodies and backgrounds are diverse. Why might this be?clip_image003

Perhaps the clothing? Many occupations require certain styles or types of dress when working. Lawyers wear suits while many others wear actual uniforms like scrubs, jumpsuits, white coats, company issued pants, shirt, and jackets. When a dress code is not specified, people still may dress alike! A colleague told me years ago that he could always tell who the kindergarten through high school teachers were since they all wore clothing from J.C. Penney’s or Sears. 

Perhaps the income? Our clothes may be similar because the comparable income levels prompt people to shop at particular types of stores. Thus, teachers who make a low to moderate income would shop at stores known for price breaks and “affordable” clothing. And lawyers, whose income on average tends to be quite high, would wear more expensive custom tailored suits. 

clip_image006This income homogeneity reminds me of a former acquaintance who had an interesting perspective on his home furnishings. Every time he got a promotion at work, he would get rid of his furniture and buy new items from a store “one level up” from the source of his last set of furnishings. 

I don’t remember the exact order but he wouldn’t shop at a store high on his list until he had the job that he felt entitled him to that type of product. When he went into the houses of other people, he would assess their work status by assessing the source and quality of their furniture. His top goal was to reach a position that would allow him to hire a designer to find unique furniture from wholesale-only sources. (He moved away and we lost touch so I’m not sure he ever got promoted to that point!)

But income can’t be the only factor, since in this group of sociologists as in many others, there are some entry-level students and others at the other end of their careers and our incomes are as diverse as our sociological experience.

Beyond income, perhaps social class? Social class includes income but also wealth, education, and occupation, so it ties some of the elements in this puzzle together. People who gain similar levels of education and jobs, and go on to make similar amounts of income and wealth, would also tend to purchase their clothing and personal hygiene products from similar sources. 

However, those at higher levels of social class would have more options for those purchases, thus we could predict more variability in their appearances than for those at lower social class levels since they have fewer options. There are many stories floating around about super rich people who dress like “everyone else” yet they are certainly able to dress up in the latest fashions if going out to a public event.

Perhaps the event? Since the setting for my initial observation is a professional conference, there are some norms about what to wear, which create some standards of dress. However, as with other societal norms, not everyone follows these norms. Actually, there is much diversity in dress at these conferences since it seems that many people do dress as they do at their home institutions. We sociologists may know a lot about norms but that doesn’t mean that we are more likely to conform to them – perhaps we are more likely to deviate from them! While many are wearing suits and other professional attire, many others are wearing anything from all black to jeans. 

clip_image009Perhaps personality? A relative once told me that she didn’t want to go into a particular line of work because the people she knew in that industry did not represent the type of person she wanted to be. She was noticing that people who do similar work not only may look alike but they may also have similar personalities, mannerisms, and/or behavior! The question then arises as to whether similar types of people go into similar types of work or people who work in similar jobs become similar over time. Does the person make the job or does the job make the person? 

Sociologically, both are probably true. (Life is not as simple as a one-way street!) 

Emile Durkheim’s concepts of mechanical and organic solidarity can help to explain the structure of life in different types of settings. In simpler, agrarian, or small communities, life is more homogeneous -- people do similar types of work, worship at the same types of places, and have similar ancestries or cultural practices. All of this offers a mechanical solidarity that ties people together. 

However in more complex, urban, and “modern” communities, organic solidarity is what holds the society together. As heterogeneity increases in population, jobs, opportunities, technologies, cultural practices and ancestry, it is the similarities that hold the entire system together. Thus, complex divisions of labor create not only different types of people but interdependent types of people in specific occupations. Those occupational groups also bond people within the group together so that their social network includes people from work and not just people in their kinship group. Symbolic bonds are displayed through clothing and other visible signs of membership. 

As our consumer options shrink with the merging of retail outlets, we see more homogeneity across the nation in our clothing and fashion. Would Durkheim say that this is just one way that our complex division of labor and the resulting interdependencies and occupational communities allow more social bonds to be formed to strengthen the society as a whole? Perhaps. Would Marx agree? Would Weber agree? Would Martineau agree? Would DuBois agree?

If we agree that people in related occupations who have similar income and education levels dress similarly because of their consumer limitations and workplace cultures, can we assume that the bonds they have with each other are reinforced by these visible and thus symbolic similarities?

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Comments

What did the sociologists wear?

One name I'm missing here is Bourdieu. Habitus and Cultural Capital can be used effectively to explain this phenomenon.

This article truely makes sense. People that work together, normally come from the same type of backround. They would have similar interests, which might even include clothing. To me its a bit of a stretch to say that all sociologist dress the same.

Sociology makes us unique because it is such a huge discipline. Look at the departments that socialized us to become sociologists... no two professors were alike. They didn't dress the same nor did they specialize in their applied sociology in the same way. If anything they usually dressed casual because they wanted to express themselves and knew that they could get away with it. That's what sociologists do... we defy norms and we know norms to defy them.

I have one question. What does a sociologist wear?

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