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Sociological Theory Comes to Life

April 11, 2012 Leave a comment

When I was earning my undergraduate degree, there was a required class called Sociological Theory.  The first time I became aware of the class was when a bunch of my classmates were sitting around, talking about what they were going to take the next semester.   They all agreed to avoid Sociological Theory as long as possible.  None of them WANTED to take the class.  They said it was boring, difficult, and essentially a waste of time.  It sounded awful.  So, I put the class off too (even longer than statistics).  When I couldn’t put it off any longer, I enrolled in the class.  Boy was I surprised.  I LOVED the class.  It was interesting.  And so useful.

Imagine that you are trying to solve a difficult puzzle without a picture of what it looks like.  You are having trouble getting started.  But then suddenly the outer edge of the puzzle comes together and you begin to see how the inside might look.  Social theory often provides that type of tool for ethnographers.  It gives us a framework or a starting point to organize data or to understand a pattern.

I’m a little bit of a social theory junkie and I’ll admit that sometimes, for fun, I take random experiences and try a few different social theories on for size to see how well they can explain what I have seen.  It is very interesting to see how a single event can be understood in a variety of ways.  Admittedly, some social theories have more explanatory power and a wider scope of applicability than others.  One of my favorites is social exchange theory.  You know this one.  The premise is that all social relationships are based on exchanges between people and that these exchanges are based on a careful cost/benefit analysis of what each party is getting/receiving.  This particular theory is widely applicable and explains a great deal.

A few years ago I saw this theory in action when I was asked to help a client understand the lives of women at high risk for HIV infection.  I was spending time learning from a group of women who worked in the sex trade industry, hearing their stories, and learning more about how sex and protection fit into their work lives as well as their personal lives.  It was during these conversations and afterwards during analysis that I saw social exchange theory at work.  Many of the women I talked to summed up their decisions to not practice safe sex in terms of the costs and benefits they paid and reaped from their sexual exchanges.  It turned out that NOT using condoms helped them to shift the power balance of the exchange in their favor.  Obviously, at work they could demand more money if they didn’t use a condom.   But less obvious was the exchanges that they often made in their private relationships.  Not using a condom during sex with their significant others signaled trust, which was an important commodity that they paid into the relationship bank.  Using a condom would signal lack of trust and would put them further into the negative when it came to power within the relationship.   Although this seems counter-intuitive (i.e., using a condom SHOULD and does generally increase the power position of the woman), within this particular population, there were other, contextual variables at play that impacted the exchange.  For example, among this population, there was not a surplus of eligible partners and every potential partner entered into the relationship in a one up position, just by virtue of being scarce.  Also, there were cultural biases that made ‘cheating’ normal for men, but unacceptable for women.  Cheating was something that female partners were expected to not only accept, but essentially pretend not to see.  If they asked their partner to wear a condom, they were violating the agreement by pointing out that there was anything to be concerned about.  Finally, because their partners could usually leave the relationship and more easily find a replacement partner than they could, the value of ‘more pleasure’ that not using a condom provided allowed my participants to add another benefit to what they were paying into the relationship.

Social exchange theory provided a framework by which to organize the data and to explain the seemingly counter-intuitive and self-destructive behavior that my participants reported. It also encouraged me to try to understand the motivations for their decisions from a more rational perspective based on their social and cultural context.  Although I didn’t spend enough time in the field to really know whether the patterns I saw would be trustworthy in a larger population, social exchange theory provided a very interesting potential explanation for risk-taking behavior within this population and one that would probably indicate less traditional approaches to sex education and STI prevention efforts.

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Reconstructing Reality: What do you see?

March 20, 2012 Leave a comment

Social scientists and philosophers have been arguing about ‘reality’ for a while now.  There are generally two approaches to how reality is understood and measured by social scientists.  Those taking a positivistic approach believe that although people may ‘see’ things differently, there is an objective reality.  On the other hand, those taking a phenomenological approach assume multiple realities to any given situation.  As an ethnographer, I generally skew toward the phenomenological viewpoint.  I realize that not all versions of reality hold up equally well, but I have seen many instances of people creating their own reality around their experiences and around products/services.

I usually use the classic film ‘The Gods Must be Crazy’ to help illustrate this concept.  So, in the film, there is a pilot that is flying over the Kalahari Desert and he drinks a coke and then throws the bottle out of the window of his plane.  A man named Xi finds the coke bottle and assumes that it is a gift from the gods and he and his tribe find TONS of uses for the bottle—it is a tool, it is a toy, it is a musical instrument, etc.  In other words, they construct an alternate reality around the bottle.  And so the movie is a parable to illustrate how one man’s trash can become another man’s treasure.

This is one way in which the social construction of reality comes to life in my work.  I do see many instances of people finding all kinds of interesting (but unintended) uses for products.  They might fashion an expensive piece of electronic equipment into a workbench or they might use a medical device in ways that are not consistent with instructions, but which fit better into their particular needs.  In these situations, my job becomes one in which I help my client understand not only WHAT they are doing, but WHY.  This often requires me to walk a delicate line.  Generally, my client has given a lot of thought to design and they have created a product that does what it is designed to do pretty well.  However, sometimes I have to help them understand that it isn’t all about what this product does.  Sometimes it is more important to understand the social world in which the product lives and how their vision of what the product should be might not be consistent with the reality in which the product lives.

For example, many years ago, we were hired by a manufacturer of high-end electronic equipment.  This company had given A LOT of thought to their product line and were really, really proud of all of the bells and whistles their products had.  But after spending a few weeks in the field, observing and talking to the people who used their products, I realized that the bells and whistles were not only NOT appreciated by the customers, they were often feared!  Many consumers lived in constant fear that someone else would change some of the settings on this device and then they would have to spend hours trying to figure out how to reset it.  There was clearly a disconnect in the ‘reality’ of what this thing was and especially around what the expectations of it were.  For my client, the real VALUE of their product and what they believed really differentiated their brand from others were the bells and whistles (this was evidenced by their advertising, but also by the angry response we got from designers and engineers when we presented our findings)!  But for the consumer, the value of the thing was that it turned on when it was supposed to and allowed them to do their job without being too complicated or distracting them from their real task.

As I said before, not all versions of ‘reality’ are tolerated equally, but it does pay to try to understand how your product might fit into the reality of daily life and how your customer might be constructing their own story about exactly what your product is and especially how (and for what) it is valued.