This American Life Sociology Syllabus

January 13, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

At the ASA meetings in 2013, when Ira Glass and “This American Life” were given the award for Excellence in the Reporting of Social Issues, Donald Newman hailed the show for providing such good material for his classes but regretted that the show was so short on theory.

No, no, Ira protested. What the show wants is stories, especially stories with interesting characters, who, almost by definition, are not typical.  Sociological principles and generalizations, Ira said, are the last things we want.*

But that means that the show is a great resource for us professors. It provides the stuff that will grab students’ attention. Then we come in and show how sociological concepts spin a larger web that includes other stories that at first might not seem related.

Last weekend’s edition (the podcast is here) is a case in point. The show, given over to Lulu Miller and Alix Spiegel of NPRs new “Invisibilia” podcast, was about “expectations.”  Miller and Spiegel begin with a laboratory rat they had smuggled into the NPR offices. They would show people the rat and ask,
Do you think that the thoughts that you have in your head – your personal thoughts – can influence the way that rat moves through space?
Nearly everyone said no.

 “Ask Bob Rosenthal,” I said to myself. I had taken methods with him not so long after he had done his  famous experiments – grad students told that their rat was either “maze bright” or “maze dull.” The rats were, of course, the same, but the results were different.  And Miller and Spiegel did ask Bob Rosenthal, who described those experiments. They also asked Carol Dweck, who extended the idea, listing other examples of expectation influencing performance.

But the phrase coined by sociologist Robert Merton, “Self-fulfilling prophecy,” isn’t mentioned, though it covers an even wider range of behaviors.  

Then Miller and Spiegel moved to a different question:
Could my expectations make a blind person – who literally has no eyeballs – see?
Even Bob Rosenthal, when they ask him, says no. The question led to a segment on Daniel Kish, who is blind – no eyeballs – but who, using a kind of echolocation he taught himself, was riding a bike by age six. He climbed trees and fences, walked to school, made his own breakfast and lunch, and couldn’t imagine living any other way.

In fifth grade, Daniel meets another blind kid, Adam.

Adam completely unnerved him because he was so incapable of getting around on his own. . . He had simply never needed to get around on his own before.
ADAM: I went to this school for the blind from age five to age seven.
And there he was taken around on someone’s arm almost all the time. In the lunchroom, people brought him his food, carried his books, helped him tie his shoelaces.
ADAM: I don’t know why people did things for me. They just did.

It’s like Robert Scott, The Making of Blind Men, I said to myself.  I’d read it decades ago. It’s about agencies for the blind, adult versions of Adam’s school. I tried to remember how Scott put it –  something like, People arrive thinking that they are normal people who have a lot of trouble seeing; the agency teaches them that they are blind people who have some residual vision.

Sure enough, just as the program called Bob Rosenthal to talk about his experimenter-effect experiments from the 60s, now they had Bob Scott talking about his research from roughly the same time.  Again, the program takes you right up to the edge of sociological concepts and generalizations and then stops.  It mentions the idea that blindness might be a “social construction,” but by this they seem to mean, as Spiegel puts it, “that blindness is mostly in our head.”

Talking with Scott, they couldn’t very well miss the role that agencies for the blind played.  Lulu Miller says that Scott, in the course of his research, started to see that what organizations for the blind were doing was to communicate to them the message, “Blind people can’t do those things.”

But the larger point is that expectations are not just personal and interpersonal (“mostly in our head”). They are institutional. “Social constructions” are more than just conventions or shared definitions. Once they become built into the architecture of institutions, they become real in a way that makes them much more difficult to question.

So** for the sociologist, a one-hour podcast fills in several open spots in the course outline – self-fulfilling prophecy, social construction of reality, institutions, self-concept and the self, and perhaps more.

*I’m working from memory here. Ira might not have said this so explicitly.

** Lulu and Alix (pronounced uh-LEECE) start most of their sentences with “so.” They’re not alone. I hear it all the time now, and since I can remember a time before this trend, I notice it. And I wonder: so when did this start?

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