Two weeks ago, we posted a really great essay by David Van Huff “A Tale Within a Tale: The Dual Nature of Ebenezer Scrooge.” David wrote this story for my class, and it helped me see Durkheim concept of the “Dual Nature” of humanity in a new way, which is why I wanted to post it. Anyway, in coming days we will post more such stories. What they will have all in common is that they are all fiction. So spoiler alert: Good social science can be made up. David’s story is in fact just an extreme version of this genre of social “science,” since not only did David make up the story, he also wrote the story about Charles Dickens character Ebenezer Scrooge who is also completely fictional—Dickens made him up too!
For that matter the all-time downloaded article from the American Anthropologist, “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema,” is also fictional. It was made up by the sociologist Horace Miner who at one-time was a Lt. Colonel in the United States Army. Despite all this blasphemous conduct (sociologist, militarist, fiction writer), the article continues to be a staple of anthropology textbooks because it highlights so well how arbitrary cultural practices are always relative, and always taken-for granted. People learn from it–the article enjoys its high status for good reason.
Oh yeah, and a couple of weeks ago, we republished Franz Kafka’s brief piece of doggerel Gemeinschaft/Fellowship. That too, come to think about it was complete fiction, written by someone who was known for the oddity of his imagination. And of course the “five friends” Kafka wrote about, as well as the sixth, are really quite made up!
Then there is sociologist Michael Young who in 1958 wrote a book The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1880-2033. The book invented the word “meritocracy” to describe the dysphemistic world where everyone is evaluated for merit by testing, and those who are successful create an isolated world in places like Cambridge (Massachusetts and England), where alone they rule over the masses who do not do so well on standardized tests. As a result of this relatively unknown novel (i.e. fiction), the word “meritocracy” entered the English language as being something very desirable—in fact it has become a political staple when politicians whine about favoritism and nepotism. Oddly, this was not Young’s point—he though the meritocracy was actually a bad thing because it leads to oligarchy, and the book explains why in ways that are chillingly real over 60 years after it was published.
And just recently I read A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka, which is a fantastic novel about modern England, World War II in Ukraine, migration, gender, and aging. Read it—it is great sociology (the main protagonist even teaches sociology at a British University).
And by the way, the classical sociologist W. E. B. DuBois wrote a great short story “Of the Coming of John” about two boys, one black, and one white, who grew up on a Georgia plantation at the turn of the century. The story is a tragic one which illustrates well DuBois’ main point about “Double Consciousness” and “The Color Line” in race. DuBois made it up.
But isn’t this blog then really about literature, and not sociology or anthropology? Shouldn’t such works be sent over to the Literature Department—why should serious social scientists even consider such work? Bottom line, if you want the truth, and nothing but the truth check out your home town newspaper (mine is the Nevada County Scooper which you can read here). Otherwise do not be afraid of too much fiction.
And by the way, did you hear that the American Anthropological Association finally decided to dissolve itself?
Tony Waters is czar and editor of Ethnography.com. He came to us from the Sociology department at California State University at Chico where he has been a professor since 1996. In 2016 though he suddenly found himself with a new gig at Payap University in northern Thailand where he is on the faculty of the Peace Studies Department. He has also been a guest professor in Germany, and Tanzania. In the past, his main interests have been international development and refugees in Thailand, Tanzania, and California. This reflects a former career in the Peace Corps (Thailand), and refugee camps (Thailand and Tanzania). His books include: Crime and Immigrant Youth (1999), Bureaucratizing the Good Samaritan (2001), The Persistence of Subsistence Agriculture: Life Beneath of the Marketplace (2007), When Killing is a Crime (2007), and Schooling, Bureaucracy, and Childhood: Bureaucratizing the Child (2012). His hobby is trying to learn strange languages–and the mistakes that that implies. Tony is a prolific academic, you can read more of his work at academia.edu.or purchase one (or more!) of his books from Amazon.com.