November 28, 2011

The Crime Fiction Sociologist

Shawn_Van_Valkenburgh_Photo By Shawn Van Valkenburgh

Instructor, Allan Hancock College


Recently I have become obsessed with mystery novels—the kind I am slightly embarrassed to read in front of my more learned peers—and I have started to notice is that there are parallels between the work that a crime fiction detective will do and the work of sociologists.

First of all, detective Sam Spade always starts his story with a question: “Whodunit?” or “Who is responsible for blackmailing my client?” or “Who ate all of my blintzes?”

A sociologist might start a research project by asking questions that sound similar to these: “Why do low-income students seem to be underperforming in public schools? What social groups might be responsible? Why is this observed social phenomenon taking place?”

Now, because the criminals in mystery books frequently have financial motives for their nefarious misdeeds, Sam Spade will often do well to start his investigation with this question: “who would profit financially from this crime?” The answer will help him to develop a “hunch” as a jumping-off point for conducting an investigation and doing research. A hunch is not admissible as evidence in a court of law, but it is as good a place to start as any other. He begins to collect evidence that will either support or disprove this hunch.

And this is where the real nitty-gritty of detective work comes in to play. Using only the power of his own mind and a little bit of elbow grease, Sam Spade starts to pound the pavement. He scrolls intensely through countless pages of microfilm (“The mayor’s wife in a photo with the CEO of GloboChem? What’s going on here??”), and he pretends to be your credit card company on the telephone as a ruse for eliciting useful information.

Sometimes he has to infuse his research methods with a little bit of creativity (No library card? No problem. In the film Chinatown detective Jake Giddis artfully conceals the theft of an important document by coughing while ripping a page from a book in order to mask the sound of paper tearing.) Ultimately, as a result of his tireless efforts to gather evidence, he comes upon a startling conclusion: while initial evidence would suggest that there was a hit-and-run accident, it was really no accident at all, but a large-scale cover-up to hide government financial corruption. Boom: case closed.

The sociologist can follow a similar path while doing research. She too starts with a “hunch,” only she calls it a “hypothesis”. She might also take a cue from Sam Spade by asking, “What social groups benefit financially from this phenomenon?” If so, she is operating from the perspective of a historical-materialist, or a Marxist sociologist. This school of sociological thought looks for the ways that society affects human behavior. More specifically, it looks for the surprising ways that social systems can be determined by political economy. In other words, whether we realize it or not, our behavior can be influenced to a shocking degree by way money is passed around in our society.

The reason that this lens is associated with Karl Marx is that he was one of the first to show the connections between social stratification and large-scale economic policy. Most people during the 19th century believed that poor people were poor because they were somehow inherently inferior to the wealthy elite. Marx, on the other hand, argued persuasively that poverty is not “natural,” but is the result of “the social relations of capitalism;” that society is systematically designed to convince the proletariat not to collectively organize for political and economic justice.

His argument is consistent with an assumption that money and “materials” indirectly determine the course of a society more than thoughts or ideas, and this more or less encapsulates what is referred to as “historical-materialism,” which Marx outlines in the preface to “A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy”: “neither legal relations nor political forms could be comprehended whether by themselves or on the basis of a so-called general development of the human mind, but that on the contrary they originate in the material conditions of life”.

Historical-materialism may not be an effective catch-all philosophy, but it can be a useful theory for starting research projects. For example, one might ask, “why do poor students score so low on standardized tests?” If you listen to certain pundits, you might attribute this phenomenon to a lack of merit on the behalf of teachers, parents, and students in low-income communities. Even worse, you might assume that these students are simply inferior somehow.

If you start from a historical-materialist or Marxist standpoint, on the other hand, you might hypothesize that the power elite benefit financially from the scholastic discrediting of disadvantaged learners because it puts pressure on them to accept lower-paying jobs. This in turn provides certain social groups with a “motive” (conscious or unconscious) to perpetuate an unfair system of standardized assessment. Such a hypothesis might then lead you to evidence that you wouldn’t have found otherwise. For example, in their book Schooling in Capitalist America: Educational Reform and the Contradictions of Economic Life, economists Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis argue persuasively that low-income student failure has systemic roots in the hierarchical social relations of capitalism. To support this claim, they note that student success correlates more with social class than IQ or merit. So just as Sam Spade’s hit and run case appeared at first to be the result of an individual’s actions but turned out to be the result of large-scale financial fraud, the low test scores of minority students appear at first glance to be the problem of individual teachers, students, and parents, but are to a large degree influenced indirectly by broad financial systems and processes.

This kind of detective work is what C. Wright Mills calls “linking biography with history,” and it represents what is known as the “sociological imagination.” To me, however, it is a good example of how the discipline can produce results that are both scientifically sound, and also starkly at odds with conventional wisdom: the killer is never who you expect.


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Arthur Asa Berger's 'Durkheim is Dead' even puts Sherlock Holmes in charge of investigating Weber's disappearance and possible murder. Several social theorists are quizzed.

I totally agree with what you are saying about how detectives and sociologists are way different. especially in mystery books. they have two different jobs and i dont feel like they are connected in any way. i feel like a sociologists would think things more in depth and a detective wants to just get started on the crime and not think past all of the murders.

I used to have a copy of "the sociologist as detective," which was a great methods book.

I agree that detectives in mystery books are not similar to sociolgists at all. They do use the same sort of ideas though like formulating a hypothesis based on what is known about the issue so far.

I agree that Sociolgists and dectectives in mystery books are quite different from eachother, but despite their differences, they do share something in common such as thinking similarly and coming up with a hypothesis based on their thoughts and ideas.

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