Sunday, December 9, 2012

Catfish: The Imaginary Other

Allow me to share a passage from Kenneth Gergen's The Saturated Self:

"The technology of the age both expands the variety of human relationships and modifies the form of older ones. When relationships move from the face-to-face to the electronic mode, they are often altered. Relationships that were confined to specific situations--to offices, living rooms, bedrooms--become "unglued." They are no longer geographically confined, but can take place anywhere. Unlike face-to-face relationships, electronic relationships also conceal visual information (eye movement, expressive movements of the mouth), so a telephone speaker cannot read the facial cues of the listener for signs of approval or disapproval. As a result, there is a greater tendency to create an imaginary other with whom to relate. One can fantasize that the other is feeling warm and enthusiastic or cold and angry, and act accordingly. An acquaintance told me that he believed his first marriage to be a product of the heavy phoning necessary for a long-distance courtship. By phone she seemed the most desirable woman in the world; it was only months after the wedding that he realized he had married a mirage" (p. 64 in my hardcover edition, emphasis mine).

When I showed this passage to my Social Psychology class this semester, I enthusiastically pointed out these words were written in 1991. Whenever I read this bit from Gergen's book, I'm impressed about his thoughts on the "imaginary other." 1991, obviously, was long before texting, Facebook, and Twitter came along. Don't we all create imaginary others in the course of our interactions? For example, I mentioned to students that I use Twitter primarily to develop connections with other sociologists. I've never met most of them in-person, so I'm forming an imaginary other of many of the people I follow on Twitter.

As my class looked at the passage, a student recommended I check out a show on MTV that reflects Gergen's viewpoint. She explained the premise of the show and a few students nodded with recognition. This semester, a handful of students in my other classes also mentioned the show--Catfish, a show based on the movie of the same name. Indeed, the show has a lot to do with creating an imaginary other. I've only seen a few episodes, but the ones I've watched were all about falling in love with a mirage. The episodes I watched involved men who lied about their appearances. Both men were physically different than what they claimed. The women who came to love them had fallen in love with pictures of someone else. They didn't only fall in love with the physical; they had fallen in love with their personalities, but the physical component was crucial. Each man portrayed himself to be "in shape," when in reality they were "out of shape." When the women met the men, they were disappointed and let down. They were hurt because they had been betrayed, and were hurt because they fell in love with something that wasn't real.

We must consider the point that people lie and are deceptive in person too. Without phones and Internet, people would still be deceptive and misrepresent themselves. We lie in person, and before electronic mail we could use "snail mail" to send misleading pictures to each other (we still can, by the way). But a show like Catfish dramatically expresses the point that people are not always what they seem. To me, the show tells us something about how desperate people can be to form connections and fall in love. A person who badly wants to find The Right One is susceptible and vulnerable to being misled. That was true before the electronic age, and remains true (and finds new expression) in the electronic/digital age.

I guess we could ask the question: in the current era, is it easier than ever (and are people more likely) to keep it unreal?

Note: See this post on The Society Pages for a sociological discussion of the movie Catfish.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Sociology in Stories: A Creative Introduction to a Fascinating Perspective

Here is some background about my book Sociology in Stories: A Creative Introduction to a Fascinating Perspective.

I set out, quite simply, to write a book that my students would read. For more than ten years, I assigned Introduction to Sociology textbooks in my courses. Through the years I'd notice students flipping through their books during class to catch up with something I'd referenced. So many times I'd see no markings at all: no highlights, no underlining, nothing in the margins. Their books had barely been touched. What a shame that the books weren't being read. Truth be told, I didn't love the textbooks either. So often I'd venture away from the textbook and do my own thing. I'd cover parts of each chapter, but more and more I'd steer in my own direction, rely on my own thoughts and observations, and discuss sociology in ways that weren't happening in the text. Finally, I broke away from the feeling that I had to require students to buy a traditional textbook. I felt free and ready to do something different.

The first phase of writing my book involved me typing many of the things I'd been saying in class. So I began putting my sociology lessons to paper. The book began to take shape, and I worked into creative methods of introducing students to thinking sociologically. My book does not consist of 1,000 definitions. It is not a complete history of the discipline. What, then, is my book? It is about the sociological perspective, brought to readers through a collection of stories and discussions. There are a lot of fictional stories with post-story discussions about the sociological components in the stories. There are also nonfiction stories about everyday life. The stories and discussions are informed by sociological ideas, theories, and research. The writing style is (I hope) fun, accessible, interesting, informative--and I hope it leaves readers wanting for more sociology.

Here are some of the contents in my book, along with a brief description of the contents. Please note this is not the entire table of contents.

"Society Gets on My Nerves Sometimes" (A story about McDonaldized society.)

"My Favorite Tattoo Ever and the Problem with Positive Thinking (Includes a discussion of Barbara Ehrenreich's book Bright-Sided.)

"That's Ghetto" (References the work of Nikki Jones' book Between Good and Ghetto.)

"Circumstances" (A sociological analysis of Jay-Z's song "December 4th.")

"Life Is an Information Game" (Goffman, Goffman, Goffman!)

"My Old Schools" (About educational inequality. Do we live in a meritocracy?)

"Homework" (A discussion of work life and home life, based on Arlie Hochschild's research.)

"(Not a Rich) White Guy" (A reflection on white privilege and middle-class life.)

"Let's Talk about Sex" (A story about hooking up. The story draws on research by Lisa Wade and Caroline Heldman.)

"Drinking Beer and Stealing Money" (A story inspired by differential association theory.)

"A Race I Can Win" (A story inspired by strain theory.)

"Iron Cage Tattoo" -- click here for story (Weber, what else?!)

"Permanent Punishment" (a story based on Peter Moskos'  book In Defense of Flogging.)

"Punishment in Society" (a discussion of Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow.)

"Dying Wishes" (Intro-level books usually avoid the subject of death. Here I dive right in.)

"America the Beautiful" (A fictional story about the future of society--immigration, social class, physical appearance, media, inequality.) Click here to read story.

"Families" (a nonfiction story about a married couple based on my interview with two men who adopted two sons).

There's much more. The book is not a loose assortment of stories. The stories are tied together by theme and narrative. If you have any questions, feel free to e-mail me ( You can purchase or request a copy at the publisher's website: