Bond Street & 64th Street, Southwest Corner

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Excursis: Telling about society ….

Howie Becker called his book — well, one of his many books — Telling About Society. I like the book, I like the title. I like Howie too, though I don’t know him very well: we started an e-mail correspondence last fall, centered on the street corners project (albeit with many entertaining digressions) and I only just met him in person last week for a few hours.

He’s a terrific sociologist and a good writer too. And, especially, he's one of the least pretentious people I’ve ever met. He writes that way too, which I admire almost as much as I admire the research and thinking he’s done over the course of a long and fruitful career. (Have a look at Art Worlds sometime).

So the title, “Telling about Society” is very much like him: straightforward. It's easily understood, even by people who aren’t social scientists, as including all the many different ways in which people who have looked at society — which is surely everyone of us, though we may not ordinarily think of it that way (broadly conceived, this is the ethnomethodological gambit) — report or “tell” about what they’ve seen, learned, studied, whether that’s the decennial U.S. census, a Gallup poll, a community study, a documentary film, a memoir or a short story or a play, a set of photographs — even New York in Plain Sight, I’d venture to say.

Tenth Avenue & 25th Street, Southeast Corner

I like this way of keeping one's fingers out of what I call the conceptual Vegematic (to which shelf I would also consign the methodological Cuisinart) but at the same time I have a speculative streak in me that wants to play with the twin questions “whaddya mean, ‘telling?’” and “whaddya mean, ‘society’?” — and I’m tempted to add a third: “whaddya mean, ‘about’?”

So bear with me while I speculate, or drop in again tomorrow or the next day when I’ve come back down to earth (assuming I’ve ever been there, or left, or can find my way back).

Actually this is an old theme of mine, one that I’ve started writing about innumerable times, then always given up. Maybe that was the best idea —  giving up, that is — and maybe it wasn’t, but the questions still nag, so here we are.

Ever since the American Heritage Dictionary was first published some forty years ago with a concise dictionary of Indo-European roots as an appendix, I’ve been fascinated by what looking at these roots may tell us, or at least by what thoughts may be provoked by looking at them.

And the ones that fascinate me the most are these (I’m abbreviating, and also slaughtering the original, elegant, and meaningful typography):

kom  beside, nearby, with
mei-1  to charge, go, move
— whence community: to go, move together

sekw-1  to follow
— whence society: the result of our following one another

del-2  to count, recount
— whence to tell: to give an account of

(from The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, 2nd Edition)

Not to suggest that any combinations of sounds such as those imputed to these ancient roots, their even more remote ancestors, or their contemporary descendents intrinsically bear these meanings, or for that matter have ever represented any meanings at all except what generation after generation has learned anew—and with variations—to associate with them since time immemorial.

But perhaps to prick the imagination a little as a way of getting started: to tell about society is to give an account of our moving together, of our following one another.

Or at least to give a partial account of how some of us more or less move together, more or less follow one another, to some extent, some of the time, in some circumstances.

How does this work? And why do we do it?

As to how it works, put crudely, it’s “monkey-see, monkey-do” all the way, I think, i.e., to move upscale into the Greek if not on into Aristotle, it’s mimesis, plain and simple.

Or maybe not so plain or simple (and I don't mean to impugn the intelligence of monkeys, either), but isn’t that what words are for? To give a definite mental locus to “a new simple idea” even though it is the result of compounding many other simple (and not so simple) ideas? (Hmmm, just moved into John Locke territory, let’s not go any further in that direction for the time being).

So let’s shelve the how it works question — I’m sure I’ll find my way back to it in another post before too long (not that I have any solid answers).

But why do we do it? Why do we “tell about society,” why do we recount how we move together? And what are we doing when we do?

Two observations:

Telling about society is part of the complex process of society itself and of living in society (and in this sense, as social mammals who "fly" our conduct "by wire" exclusively via the "models" of the world we've learned and continue to learn, we are never NOT living in society): one of the ways in which we follow one another, move together, is to tell one another about how we do it.

Though most of the time in most of our actions (movements), we’re following one another (however imperfectly, which is an important source of the variation that we later, retrospectively, sometimes identify as “creativity”), when we tell one another about society we’re venturing out of our “follower” mode and into a kind of “leadership,” albeit a leadership of a special kind, unlike the sort of leadership that leads a troop over a hill or a society into a depression (but not unrelated either), a sort of “bracketed” movement (… oh oh oh oh that Phenomenological rag, it’s so elegant, so intelligent — apologies, T.S., apologies, E.H, just couldn’t resist), an “as if” movement that can, sometimes, short-circuit a whole lot of more or less random milling amount (there’s a lot of “Brownian motion” so to speak in social action) and get us to a result (sometimes a blown fuse) a lot sooner.

Another word for this is “teaching.” (I’m not going to get into the Wittgensteinian thing of “showing” vs. “telling” — not now.)


When I took a job in the Boston area in the mid-1980s I was astounded at the style of driving there. Coming from Upper Fairfield County, CT, it seemed as if the rules of the road, signage, signals, etc., were no more than a half forgotten moral framework, like the Ten Commandments or whatever, to be remembered from time to time but not really of much relevance to one’s day to day conduct as a blasphemer, idolater, Sabbath breaker, adulterer, thief, and liar (to say nothing of coveting, well, everything, but hopefuly not falling into actual murder).

I mean: red light? But no one’s coming, or at least I can get through the intersection before they reach it. One way street? But I’m only going the wrong way for one or two blocks. No left turn here? That’s just ridiculous! And so on.

But gradually as a daily participant in this sink of vehicular iniquity, I learned to drive that way myself, and had some rude awakenings a few years later when I came back to the New York metropolitan area.

My private theory, developed while driving in Boston, was that drivers in an area teach other drivers how to drive, and they do it by driving the way they do. Much as pedestrians in Manhattan teach other pedestrians how to walk in the city (there are analogies between Manhattan pedestrians and Boston drivers, but I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader).

And so it is — this is my real thesis, or one of them: human beings never ever stop learning, not even for a millisecond. There’s nothing to be done about this, it’s just the way we are (we’re not the only animals for which this true).

With inevitable result that we’re also always teaching, non-stop, never mind whether intentionally or unintentionally, formally or informally: teaching one another how to behave, how to move together, how to follow one another, in short: how to live in society.

And “telling about society” is how we do this when we do it intentionally, whether formally or not, and no matter what medium we use.

Jürgen Habermas said somewhere a long time ago in his work on “communicative competence” that “every language is its own metalanguage” and while I’m not going to take up the idea of society as a “language” (nor, thankfully, does he), I would say that if we regard society as the on-going collective product of our moving together, our following one another, then “telling about society” is our “meta-society,” our “meta-moving” together or “meta-following” one another, our "meta-community."

And this does, I think, have a further consequence: what we are telling, and how we are telling it, and to whom, matters, has an inescapbably moral dimension, even if we can’t at all reliably or successfully or consistently lay out the sense of that dimension and what it means as a guide to how we drive or walk or do “sociology,” whether in Boston or New York or wherever else there may be people moving together, following one another ….

Well now, I really have gotten myself into the deep end of the pool so I think I'll leave it at that.

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