April 12, 2016

Ten Sociological Metaphors and Paradoxes

WynnBy Jonathan Wynn

A few years ago, as a graduate student I was talking with an older sociologist who was cranky about how qualitative research was "too cute" in its lyrical presentation of data. I asked further about what that meant to her and she told me that she felt sociology should be "straight science." Upon further prompting she exclaimed, "metaphor has no place in sociology." Flummoxed with the conversation, I blurted, "WHAT ABOUT WEBER'S IRON CAGE!?!"

Metaphor is a rhetorical technique wherein one image stands in place of another. (Metaphor is different from a simile, wherein something is explicitly described as "like" something else.) My impolite response to a senior faculty member wasn't my finest moment. Her position, however, was astonishing because sociology is chockablock with wondrous metaphors and creative paradoxes that serve as conceptual tools for research and heuristic devices.

It seems almost paradoxical to say that science uses the literary technique of metaphor, and yet, they are scattered throughout much of what we write and read. Weber's classic phrase on the rise of modern bureaucracy across social life isn't our only metaphor, either. In truth, whenever a social science scholar writes of worlds, structures, networks, center vs. periphery, or roles, they are using metaphors.

More explicit uses of metaphors include Robert Putnam's use of social capital and Pierre Bourdieu's cultural capital and field, as well as paradoxes like Massey and Denton's American Apartheid which looks at how segregation has reemerged in a post-Jim Crow United States. In fact, looking at the most cited articles and books in our field, you will note that many have some key metaphor or paradox embedded within them. (Embedded! That's another one!)

There too many to catalogue here and, although I tried to think of a "Top Ten Sociology Metaphors list," I knew I would omit too many.

Instead, then, I offer here Ten Sociology Metaphors I Thought of This Week in No Particular Order:

  1. Society is nothing more than a web of patterned interactions for Georg Simmel, a contract for Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and as an organic body for Herbert Spencer.
  2. The self is a mask for Erving Goffman and a mirror for Charles Cooley. (Goffman's entire dramaturgical model is full of metaphor: backstage and frontstage, scripts, props, etc. And then there is stigma and framing).
  3. The veil is W.E.B. DuBois' metaphor for the racial dynamics that tinge how African Americans see the world and how the world sees African Americans (in The Souls of Black Folk).
  4. Using another organic inspiration, the city was an example of social ecology for the early University of Chicago urban studies of Robert Park and Ernest Burgess.
  5. In addition to the iron cage, Max Weber's other great metaphor is in his explanation of the importance of ideas in the path of human progress, evokes the train yard to say that ideas are the switchmen of history (1946/1958: 280).
  6. Returning to Pierre Bourdieu, he writes of a field of power as something akin to a soccer field: "a multi-dimensional space of positions such that every actual position can be defined in terms of a multi-dimensional system of co-ordinates whose values correspond to the values of the different pertinent variables" (1985: 724).
  7. Although Marx's idea of capital could certainly be considered a metaphor, new terms like social capital and cultural capital (speaking of Bourdieu) are assuredly metaphors for the non-economic, less tangible goods that can be exchanged and acquired.
  8. The twin metaphors of the glass ceiling and glass escalator indicate the invisible limits and advancements that are awarded to women and men.
  9. Gloria Anzaldúa, in La Frontera (1987), writes of the borderlands between nations and cultures to illustrate how being a queer Latina places her own identity in an intermediate zone.
  10. In her article "Culture in Action: Symbols and Strategies" (1986), Ann Swidler describes culture as a toolkit. Somewhat similarly, Barbara Myerhoff's Number Our Days describes cultural practices as being akin to quilting: "Like a quilt, [Senior] Center life was made up of many small pieces sewn together by necessity, intended to be serviceable and to last."

A paradox on the other hand, is a statement that is somewhat self-contradictory. These puzzles, or contradictory ideas, permeate sociology as well, in part because our field is often at its best when it offers a counter intuitive idea. These are powerful ways of unlocking some of the stickier issues of social life. (We here at Everyday Sociology Blog often do this: In my last blog post I wrote of the idea that masculinity, rather than being cast as the epitome of strength, could also be seen as being incredibly fragile, and my first post was about how "gay marriage" made me get "straight married.")

Like metaphor, I will not dare to offer the Top Ten Sociological Paradoxes, but here are, instead, the Ten Sociological Paradoxes I Thought of This Week in Rough Chronological Order:

  1. For Emile Durkheim, deviance is normal.
  2. For Georg Simmel, conflict creates groups.
  3. In The Gift, Marcel Mauss notes that exchange creates value instead of the other way around.
  4. Shaming serves as a form of group bonding (See Harold Garfinkel's "Conditions of Successful Degradation Ceremonies," in The American Journal of Sociology in 1956).
  5. In perhaps the most well-known paradox on this list, Mark Granovetter (1973) finds the strength of weak ties: That once- or twice-removed connections are more useful than stronger bonds (i.e., close friends and family).
  6. Dean MacCannell (1976) describes a tourist set—the idea that tourists' ability to match visits with their preconceptions of a place like San Francisco (e.g., Coit Tower, The Golden Gate Bridge, The Presidio) determines enjoyment.
  7. Art, for Howard Becker, is seemingly the result of individual genius but it is, in fact, the product of a social world of an invested network and established conventions (1982).
  8. Something of a mirror to Robert Merton's Matthew Effect (i.e., those with greater resources acquire even greater gains, while those without resources remain bereft of them), Shamus Khan's Privilege notes a paradox of democratic inequality: despite the fact that the U.S. is more open today with greater access for all, inequality has only increased (2010, p. 5).
  9. In The Marriage-Go-Round (2009) Andrew Cherlin writes of a kind of marriage paradox in contemporary American society: We long for and idealize marriage, and yet are terrible at it as compared to other Western countries; we are hyper-individualized yet seek marital commitments.
  10. Research shows that poor people are more likely to be the victims of crimes than perpetrators of crime (see Adam Reich's Hidden Truth: Young Men Navigating Lives In and Out of Juvenile Prison). Also, Victor Rios notes is the overpolicing-underpolicing paradox in Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino boys, noting that "Policing seemed to be a ubiquitous part of the lives of many of these marginalized young people; however, the law was rarely there to protect them when they encountered victimization (2011, p. 54).

What metaphors and paradoxes have you come across in your writing? Add them to the comments!


""poor people are more likely to be the victims of crimes than perpetrators of crime"" how true is this

That once- or twice-removed connections are more useful than stronger bonds (i.e., close friends and family).

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