September 06, 2012

Anecdotes and Examples

clip_image002By Sally Raskoff

In class, you may notice that many professors tell anecdotes and give examples to illustrate the points they are making in their lectures. Some professors also invite students to come up with their own. An anecdote, or story, and examples serve the main purpose of bringing a concept or theory alive with relevance.

Anecdotes can provide many points of connection for a theory or set of concepts.Examples can illustrate a concept or theory with a singular mental image.

As an introduction to social norms, I will often use an example or actual image of some social reality they don’t expect to see, such as a group of bikers with their motorcycles-- who happen to be women over 70. This example prompts thought and discussion about how norms (and stereotypes) operate in our lives often without our notice. I may tell a story about a trip to Europe (for an International Sociological Association meeting!) in which I learned that airport norms are not as universal as some would have thought.

On the downside, using examples and anecdotes can be a bit dangerous. They aren’t just stories to tell to fill up time or to get to know each other. Used in real life, anecdotes and examples are part of conversation and can help build rapport. Used for a class, however, stories have a specific purpose – to illuminate or apply to theory or concepts.

If we hear about a particular theory about society but we know or have heard of someone whose life fits only partially or whose experience is the opposite of the findings, it is tempting to throw out the whole theory. However, the more we learn, and the more we use our sociological imaginations to connect individual experiences with social structure and history, the more clearly we can see that any one individual’s situation doesn’t negate research based on empirical data.

For example, the research findings on how anti-poverty programs can actually get many people out of poverty aren’t negated when someone has heard of someone who “has babies to get more welfare” money. Any one example, whether real or not, doesn’t negate the research findings. (Other problems exist when we assume that a population or type of situation is larger than it might be. Stereotyping exists when we assume any one group of people all have the same characteristics apart from those that define them as part of that group.)

Max Weber’s concept of ideal types is useful here. He used ideal types to describe, among other things, bureaucracies. Those hallmarks of bureaucracy (hierarchy, division of duties, etc.) describe all the things that a bureaucracy might include. He also acknowledged that ideal types rarely exist in reality. Ideal types are a useful device for identifying the contours of a social reality, in this case, an efficient organization structured around rational processes and knowledge.

Thus a theory may identify the contours of some social reality – whether they explicitly say they are creating an ideal type or not.

If a theory – and the aggregate research that confirms it – shows a societal pattern, keep in mind that it is not appropriate to apply that theory to individuals. If we do that, we are committing an ecological fallacy since what is accurate on a societal basis may not be accurate for individual realities in that societal setting. (

This may relate to stories you have (or will hear) in methods and statistics about apparent relationships such as that between murder rates and ice cream sales. Both show a statistically significant positive relationship: in summer, murder rates rise and ice cream sales increase. The real culprit – or independent variable – is (spoiler alert) hot weather.

While we may learn useful information about life from societal level analysis, we should take care when applying such information. Recent studies about how happiness is “contagious” found that social networks consist of people with similar happiness levels. The same patterns are also true for obesity.

Does this mean that if we have happy (or obese) people in our lives we will magically become happy (or obese)? No.

These studies show the importance of who is in one’s social network but it does not automatically mean that happy people make other people happy (or obese) just by being in their social network.

Many factors – other than simply being happy or obese – are likely at work to create these patterns. And they won’t be perfect explanations for all individuals. There are likely some people who are rather unhappy but who are surrounded by happy people who are surrounded by other happy people – and they may not change into happy people. (Hence, my previous statement about no pattern being applicable all the time.)

The happiness study and others identified a pattern and used social networks to frame the research. These studies help us better understand social networks and how they work – but they don’t necessarily apply to every individual.

So while we may use our own or some other individual’s experiences as examples or anecdotes to help make sense of a concept, we must ensure that we are using those stories appropriately. Concurrently, when we interpret research findings, it is important to establish appropriate boundaries of those interpretations that are based on the study’s data analysis.

Society is more than the sum of its parts.


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