Overcoming Our Predilection to Think Individualistically

Intro Soc Fall 2002
Dan Ryan

From Last Time

What is obvious? "Obvious" is a bad source of information. If you ask whether A causes B and your answer is that it obviously does, be careful. What is obvious in one era is often embarrassingly wrong in the next. And what is obvious to me is not always obvious to you. "Everybody knows" can be a very poor basis on which to believe something. Although we might risk appearing pedantic, we want know which things that are "obvious" are true. "Obviousness" is one of many forms of enchantment, views of the world based in "just-so-ness." One of our tasks as social scientists is to demythologize the world.

Definitions; methods, science, social science; your grandmother; the 13th Floor; micro/macro; personal/impersonal; structure/agency; Kanter on Pearl St.; No parents on ballfield; TIPS; Breaking up networks during redevelopment

Main Points

  1. Structural/Social vs. Individualistic explanations (structural intervention rather than personal one)
  2. Fundamental Attribution Error
  3. Logic of suicide studies

Structure vs. Individual

On July 9 of this year All Things Considered broadcast a report on a "Parent-Proof Baseball Field" being installed in New Brunswick, New Jersey. This suggests a number of interesting sociological ideas.

This last one is, perhaps, the most important.

Stories in Newman when something happens to us we assume first of all that it is about us, about who we are as actors, we try to explain things in terms of individual characters and attributes.

Fundamental Attribution Error : explaining something in terms of individual traits when in fact the cause is structural.

One might feel, for example, that one doesn't know anyone during the first week of school. One might start to wonder whether there is something undesirable about oneself. Perhaps I'm not very friendly. Perhaps I should not have spoken up like I did the other day. OR perhaps it's the first week of school and people haven't really started to trust one another yet.

Suppose you apply to the Yale Law School and you don't get in. What does that tell you? That you don't have what it takes? That you aren't good enough for Yale? In fact, neither. They get 1000s of applications for 200 spots and they could fill the class many times over without changing the quality of the student body. Not getting into Yale tells you about as much about YOU as not winning the lottery does.

Imagine a heterosexual corner of the world for a moment in which men tend to marry women who are a few years their junior. What effect will this have on the mate finding scene? Younger men will find it hard to get dates as will the oldest women. When we add in the longer life expectancy of women, we can expect to find an excess supply of unmarried senior women and an excess supply of unmarried young men. The experience of the "the world of dating" will be different for 19 year old men and 19 year old women though not because of anything they are personally doing.

Lesson I : to really understand what happens in individuals' lives one must look beyond and look at what is going on in the broader society

Note that we tend to be selective when engaging in attribution errors. When someone more powerful (or ourselves) does something good we attribute it to individual causes. When something bad happens to them it is structural. When someone else or someone lower in the hierarchy does something good, we think it is structure (e.g., they must know somebody). When someone lower does something wrong, it merely confirms what we knew about them all along.

Interesting thing is that what we just said is that even the distribution of FAE is socially structured by the relationship between the attributor and the attributee.

Textbook Quotes of Note

The United States is a society dominated by individualistic explanations of human behavior that seek to understand problems and processes by focusing exclusively on the personality, psychology, or even the anatomy of each individual. (5.7)

[T]he sociological imagination allows us to recognize that the solutions to many of our most serious social problems lie not in changing the personal situations and characteristics of individual people but in changing the social institutions and roles available to them. (9.7)

Lesson : A significant fraction of the behavior of individuals is not individual behavior.

Balancing "blame social structure" with "consider structural explanations"


Why did s/he do it? Wrong question. No matter what the answer you can find many examples (our grandmothers coming in handy this time) of people with the same "symptoms" or "causes" who do not commit suicide. So, what do we do? Just chalk it up as something some people decide to do? This won't do because suicide rates show patterns. The numbers go up and down and they vary from place to place, from group to group, in ways that look anything but random.

Canary in a coal mine. Perhaps folks who do something like commit suicide, engage in road rage, kill lots of kids at school are just the most sensitive among us to underlying social forces, aggregate tendencies in the group. Everyone on the highway is getting more and more on edge. Some folks, though, also have bad days at work. And some of them also happen to have guns in their cars. It's not that the individuals are more volatile, but they are in a structural situation that lets them react more quickly to what's going on around them.

Durkheim on suicide

Suicide as "obviously" an individual act. It reflects a person's state of mind. If we've known anyone who has committed suicide we are often perplexed and angry and etc. but we often arrive at an "explanation" they were depressed, despondent, saw no hope in the future, etc.

But remember the parable of the 14th floor and the canary in the coal mine. Fight the urge to focus on the single case. Here's what is SOCIOLOGICALLY INTERESTING about suicide.

Differences by religion, occupation, region. Look at world map, etc.

These patterns are social facts. Durkheim's dictum is "explain social facts with social facts." Our individualistic urge is to try to explain why anyone commits suicide the implication being that it is not a normal thing to do. But even though it is not a healthy thing to do for the individual, from a sociological point of view, SUICIDE IS NORMAL. It happens in all societies of all types. (We might even worry about a society in which there was not suicide at all, but that's a different question. Following another line of thought in Durkheim we might say that if suicide decreased too much we would start calling things like not eating well a form of suicide, but again, that's for another day.)

Logic of Suicide

  1. Suicide is normal
  2. Patterns and variations exist quantitatively discernible
  3. We make comparisons
  1. Qualitatively look at the comparisons
  2. Suggest social cause.

Durkheim found, for example:

Catholics < Protestants

Married < Single, widowed, divorced

With Children < Without children

Densely Populated < Sparsely populated

What do these patterns suggest. Role of social ties. Too little tie to the group and the "other causes" of suicide are more likely to have an effect.

But troublesome cases:

moderate groups < cults/extremists/high commitment organizations (e.g., strong tie organizations)

>>> both over and under integration are problems

Look at another set of patterns. Suppose we see high rates in people who go bankrupt. OK, but we also see high rates in people who win the lottery. And among people indicted for crimes. And among those recently released from jail or discharged from the military or retiring. Here the causes seems to be sudden lack of structure or loss of structures one has depended on. This


Changes in the age distribution of suicide cases between 1950 and 1995

Source: WHO http://www5.who.int/mental_health/main.cfm?p=0000000148


Source: WHO http://www5.who.int/mental_health/main.cfm?p=0000000021



Rate of Suicide in the United States, 199094

NOTE: Per 100,000 population. Adjusted to the age, sex, and race/ethnicity distribution of the 1980 U.S. population.