The social sciences aspire to understand social phenomena with theories, case studies and statistical descriptions of populations, or they may explain individual experiences using general principles derived from other fields such as psychology, anthropology and economics. In this book, I aspire to review general principles and suggest 21st century revisions based on an understanding of human nature.
The term “society” tends to be a fuzzy word that refers to the inner workings of groups of different sizes. As an abstract term, society refers to ideas and beliefs about how groups work. Society is often treated as an agency that does things to people and causes humans to act one way or another. But there is no actual entity, society; just humans interacting with other humans.
The adjective “social “ refers to interpersonal dynamics and also to devices invented to regulate human behavior such as fences, gates, roads, stores, schools, churches and prisons. In this chapter, we view society as a product of human-primate behavior. Social devices grow in size and complexity as communities expand, but human nature does not change.
We recognize that humans are social animals and generally depend on each other to provide context and meaning. However, because of the construction of the human mind at birth, each human has difficulty reconciling self-identity and group membership. There are discrepancies between self-interest and group interest; between bonding, belonging and being a free independent soul. While there is a strong tendency to conformity in every group, selfish interests often motivate deviance. Token conformity or simulated conformity provides a good disguise for deviant individuals who seek to exploit others.
The word ”community” describes a group of people who live together. As groups enlarge, factual kinship is replaced by a sense of identity or similarity and cooperation to achieve some stability and security of the home. Communication is one of the tools of community. Communion is a ritual of the community.
Sociology is typical of academic disciplines with different schools based on the writings of single individuals or small groups. The names for different point of view become academic commodities and membership in the right group will determine academic success or failure. Sociology has tended to be a cognitive box with a specialized literature. Insights that occurred to non-sociologists long before appeared in the discipline as new and sometimes controversial innovations. Poore suggested that different schools of sociology such as the Functionalists, Marxists and Symbolic Interactionists were divergent except that they all assumed that the social world is orderly, that patterns of behavior and interaction in society are regular and systematic rather than haphazard and chaotic. Poole described American sociologist, Harold Garfinkel, as an innovator who introduced and old-new perspective to sociology in his book "Studies in Ethnomethodology." Poole stated: “Functionalists regard society as the outcome of value consensus in society, which ensures that behavior conforms to generally accepted norms. Marxists see it as a result of the subordination of one class to another, it is precarious and prone to disruption by revolution but nevertheless it exists. Interactionists differ from these macro-perspectives by viewing social systems as something that is created in a multiplicity of interactions. It is order which results from the processes of definition, interpretation and negotiation. In contrast, Ethnomethodologists recognize that social order is illusory… in reality it is chaotic. For them social order is constructed in the minds of social actors.” Garfinkel suggested that individuals make sense of their social world by recognizing patterns that are used as frameworks for interpreting new experiences.
For example, Garfinkel asked a number of students to take part in an experiment, telling them that it involved a new form of psychotherapy. The students were invited to talk about their personal problems with an ‘advisor’ who was separated from them by a screen. They could not see the advisor and could only communicate with him via an intercom. They were to ask him a series of questions about their problems to which he would respond by answering either ‘yes’ or ‘no’. What the students didn’t know was that these responses were not authentic answers to the questions posed but a predetermined sequence of yes and no answers drawn from a table of random numbers. Although there was no consistency in the answers given to the questions, the students made sense of them by attempting to recognize an underlying pattern in the advice they were being given. Most found the advice reasonable and helpful. This was so even when, some of the advice was contradictory. Thus in one case a student asked: "so you think I should drop out of school then?" and received a ‘yes’ response. Surprised by this he asked, "You really think I should drop out of school?" only to be given a ‘no’ answer. Rather than dismissing the advice as nonsense, the student struggled to find its meaning, looking back for a pattern in the advisors' responses, referring back to previous answers, trying to make sense of the contradiction terms of the advisors’ knowledge of this problem. Never did it occur to the student to doubt the sincerity of the advisor. What the students were doing throughout these counseling sessions, Garfinkel argues, was constructing a social reality to make sense of an often-senseless interaction. They were able to bring order to what was in fact a chaotic situation.
Garfinkel recognized that people make sense of a remark or action by reference to the context in which it occurs; that is they index it to particular circumstances. The counseling experiment had sufficient prestige that led the students to accept the situation as authentic. The problems with pattern recognition involve bias, cognitive boxes and perseveration. Garfinkel recognized that pattern recognition can become so fixed that it is incapable of accommodating new experiences.
Erving Goffman is another innovator who extended sociology toward an empathetic view of the chaotic. Collins and Makowsky in their brief history of sociology described Goffman’s method: “to look at places where smooth-functioning public order breaks down in order to see what normally holds it together. The method has produced insights that have begun to restructure sociological theory; we have come to see how social reality is constructed out of tacit understandings among people meeting face to face… A person is not an isolated thing, but an image carved out of the whole life space of his or her interactions with others.” Goffman compared normal interactions with presentations seen on the stage in theatres. His view is entirely consistent with the view of anthropologist who recognized the dramatic performances common in preindustrial human societies and by ethnologists who recognized the dramatic aspects of animal behaviors, especially territorial and courtship displays. Humans have not invented anything new. In his classic Text, Asylum, Goffman, described his experience working in a mental hospital and criticized total institutions such as hospitals, prisons, and military boot camps. Collins and Makowsky suggested that:” the hospital is a place to keep patients away from normal society – the patient spends every hour of every day within the same walls, subject to the same monolithic controls and facing the abiding scrutiny of a regular staff that keeps permanent records. The social sources that reflect his or her self are degrading; they offer the patient no escape into privacy or to alternative audiences.”
There have been many observers and critics of prisons that come in different sizes, shapes and flavors, but all share the common feature of entrapment and control of inmates. Some prisons such as mental hospitals pretend to be serving the needs of mentally ill patients. Even general hospitals retain some of the features of prisons, leaving significant doubts that the best interests of patients and their families are being served. In an ideal world there would be no prisons in any disguise.