November 15, 2010

Discovering Sociology and Intimate Strangers

new janis By Janis Prince Inniss

As an undergraduate, I took an Introduction to Sociology class to fulfill a requirement. Although I had an aunt who was a sociologist, I still didn’t know what that sociology meant. The book I remember reading in that class—which I still have wrapped in brown paper for protection—was a compilation of some famous social science essays. The most memorable was “Body Ritual among the Nacirema”. From that book, I also remember reading “Who Owns America? The Same Old Gang” by Maurice Zeitlin, about the concentration of wealth in the U.S. Reading these and other essays, I was fascinated that such interesting material could be part of sociology.

clip_image002I think that it was in my Sociology of the Family class that I was assigned Intimate Strangers: Men and Women Together, written by sociologist and psychotherapist, Lillian Rubin. That book heightened the spark I felt in my Introduction to Sociology class. I became engrossed in reading the book, and the experience was more akin to reading a novel, rather than a book for class. I couldn’t believe how real the descriptions and conversations were! They matched many of my experiences and observations of male/female relationships perfectly. The book also provided the most compelling explanations for the problems encountered in intimate relationships that I had ever read. I found the writing and the insights profound.

Rubin’s thesis is that because males and females are socialized so differently almost from birth, by the time we are adults, our psychological outlook is vastly different, and in many respects, almost opposite. This is largely because women, in most cases, are the primary care-takers of children. Therefore, girls experience the formation of their gender identity and ego boundaries with someone of the same sex.

Imagine my excitement when a chance encounter with my Introduction to Sociology professor led to him saying that he knew Lillian Rubin! I couldn’t believe it. That anyone I was remotely connected to knew the author of this book that had so moved me, was unbelievable. (Although my father was a writer, a connection to this author felt like Professor Levine was saying he knew Michael Jackson or some other world famous celebrity.) And, he said, she would be coming to Queens College to teach soon.

Indeed, Lillian Rubin came to teach at my school and I was had the chance to meet her. I took a class with her and fell further in love with sociology. I don’t remember what grade I got for the essay I wrote in her class, but she returned it, heavily edited with suggestions and corrections. I’ll never forget that Dr. Rubin offered to review a revised version of that paper too. As she was a visiting professor, she gave me her home address and that began a relationship that continues to this day.

Reading Intimate Strangers just as I was grappling with such relationships myself made for an impactful experience, personally and professionally. Not only did the book provide me with important insights, but the research methodology it uses is one that continues to appeal to me. Rubin’s work—in Intimate Strangers and other studies, particularly Worlds of Pain: Life in the Working-Class Family – is considered exemplary of qualitative research. These works have all been very influential in my practice of sociology, that is, in the ways that I conduct sociological research. Like others, Intimate Strangers showcased Rubin’s ability to elicit profoundly personal tales from people, partly because of her skills as a psychotherapist. She was also skilled at analyzing data, and presenting it all in a clip_image003most engaging manner. (It is noteworthy that Rubin is among the bestselling authors of sociology books.) Each of those are skills that drew me to becoming a sociologist—a particular kind of sociologist. I am a sociologist who tends to be interested in questions best answered by “thick description” (or a scoop of ice-cream). The research seminar I took with Dr. Rubin gave me the opportunity to learn from a master about qualitative methodology, and I built on those skills in graduate school and subsequent research.

Reading Intimate Strangers and then meeting the author provided me with clarity about who I could be professionally. I was already a psychology major, so I identified with the therapist career that Dr. Rubin was also pursuing. Until then, I didn’t have a clear sense of how my clinical interests could be paired with and even enhance my sociological interests. Before reading Intimate Strangers, although I was excited about the discipline of sociology, I didn’t know on what areas in the field I wanted to focus; marriage and family issues continue to drive my professional interest today. And I had given little thought to questions of research methodology. This experience continues to shape my professional identity and path; I wish you a journey that is at least as exciting.


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The author does a good job providing personal insight on what it feels like to find a career that you are interested in. It shows that some fields may not look interesting, but you will never know until you look deeper into them. For example, reading a book, like the author did which completely changed her point of view on sociology. I believe that this is a good study tool to help one find the job that they are looking for. Also, I think it is very cool that she continues her quest for new knowledge everyday just as the famous sociology author did.

I'm taking both an online Psychology class and Sociology and so far my Sociology class has been more interesting and personal then my Pyschology class, which confuses me.

Eric -
(I majored in both Psychology and Sociology.) I hope your Psychology classes become more interesting to you...but perhaps these experiences help to define our interests.

I think it's cool how you are so interested in sociology. I am beginning to learn about the idea of gender identity, and I agree with what you said about that. Women and men are definitely raised to be quite different. I found it interesting that Rubin theorized that different forms of socialization can lead to differing psychological outlooks.

Sociology is a very interesting subject. I didn't know I would actually like learning this. I was the same way I just took this class, because I didn't have anything else to take. I took psychologist and sociolgy is way more interesting.

I have always found sociology very interesting

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