Little White Lies

Structural-functionalism is primarily interested in the rules of society, it assumes the members of the society simply acted according to these rule and the exceptions to these rules were dismissed as “deviant”  (Moberg 2013, 208). This thinking didn’t consider that “deviant” behavior could be a regular behavior that exists within the society and should be seen as just as important in understand the behaviors of the individuals within (Moberg 2013, 207). In response to this school of thought, Sir Raymond Firth developed a theory regarded as “Anti-structure” according to Mark Moberg in Engaging Anthropological Theory: A social and Political History. This anti-structure finds it important to look at individuals actual behaviors within the society and not assume that they follow the rules. By doing this, he was able to identify that the “deviance” behavior should actually be seen as just as important in understanding a society as you would the structure of society. This theory the same structural-functionalist category of social structures which includes social rules, but added another layer called “Social Organization” which consists of the actual behaviors rather than the assumed behaviors (Moberg 2013, 208). Firth believes that the individuals within a society can and frequently if not regularly reinterpret and manipulate the structural rules to benefit them (Moberg 2013, 208). This theory makes the structure of society no longer rigid like the structural-functionalist viewed, but something more like Silly-Putty. The individuals within a society still have to act within the Silly-Putty, but it can be twisted, stretched, and squeezed into different amorphous shapes.

This manipulation of societal rules is something I found to be prevalent in American society as well. For example this practice can be seen in things as complex as legal matters such as marital practices, gun rights, and business law and as simple as a lying. As a general rule within American society lying is seen as deviant behavior and understood to be bad but there seems to always be exceptions and different ways to interpret what constitutes as lying. Lying is defined as “to make an untrue statement with intent to deceive” or “to create a false or misleading impression” by Merriam-Webster’s online Dictionary. The vague definition of this word allows individuals to frequently reinterpret what constitutes as lie. There are ways in which children and adults find to circumvent this rule and exceptions that our society has a tendency accepts overall. Examples of these include “little white lies”, “stretching the truth”, or equivocating. Little white lies are still seen as being untruthful but with harmless affects and often benefit both parties. Little white lies are seen as often necessary and wouldn’t be shamed to the same degree as a typical lie. I still remember first learning this and after years of being told not to lie and lying is bad, I found a loophole that many people follow.  A famous example that shows the purpose of white lies is the question, “Does this dress make me look fat?” If the dress actually does, both parties would be hurt by an honest response so it’s considered socially acceptable to just say “no”  and spare everyone involved. This example was even used in the following Geico commercial:

Like Firth theorized, there is another layer that needs to be considered when understanding society which is that the individuals can and will play with the rules to benefit the themselves, and lying is just one of the many cases where this can be seen. The mere act of actively manipulating a social rule (like in the example above) validates the person as existing within the social structure —  a.k.a. the Silly-Putty — because they must first be aware of the society’s rules in order to reinterpret them for one’s self-interest. If all acts of lying were seen as deviant, it would lead to an incomplete understanding of the actual function of lying in American society. The ability for the individuals within the overarching culture to reinterpret and manipulate rules needs to be understand as well as the structure in order to better understand societies rather than dismissing all acts outside of the perceived structure as deviance.

References:

Moberg, Mark. 2013. Engaging Anthropological Theory: A Social and Political History. New York: Routledge.

-Jessica M. Hebert

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3 thoughts on “Little White Lies

  1. Ha, that commercial. And yet, aren’t there situations where it’s also ok to be honest? For instance, if I’m shopping with a close woman friend (sister, mother, especially) and I ask if something looks ok on me, I expect an honest assessment. But it’s a landmine, and not everyone understands. So, if I tell the hairdresser I want my hair cut in such-and-such a way because (insert critical assessment of some feature), her immediate reaction is “Oh, no, [that feature] is beautiful!” That is, the ‘lying/assessing’ thing is a landmine in so many ways. So why is that? And is it gendered? In this way, we can see how ‘deviance,’ even symbolic ‘deviance’ (such as white lies) might be a marker toward the internal contradictions and conflicts in society. Hmmmmm.

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