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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The Organic Analogy and Biology

By Jessica Hebert

The organic analogy is an analogy that compares society to a physical organic being. This analogy is used by the social theorists Spencer and Durkheim to make sense of society, but is used in biology to compare living organisms to societal components.

Within this analogy Spencer, a social theorist, compares the individual parts of a society to certain organs within one organic body. He shows how societies can sometimes continue to function without certain elements, organs. For example, if a human loses an arm they can still continue to function. On the other hand, humans wouldn’t be able to function without other organs like the heart. Spencer also compared societal complexities to organic life. Societies that are more complex can be compared to complex life-like mammals or the human body, while societies that are simple can be compared to single-celled organisms or cute little amoebas. This is important because the idea is the more complex a society becomes the more specialization occurs so you end up with specific organs for certain jobs rather than multi-functioning parts of a creature. I am not sure what organs Spencer felt fit which aspects of society best, but I’m sure this would be enjoyable to draw a picture of especially considering my complete failure to understand biology.

This brings me to my second point. I have seen this analogy used often, but most memorably in when learning biology. In contrast to Spencer, the analogy was using society to understand the functions of the internal parts of a cell. Every year in science class and then for the final time in high school biology, I heard this analogy being used to explain the function of the different parts of cells. I remember most that the Golgi apparatus is the post office, and the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell.

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The analogy was being used in this way because it is assumed that the students would better be able to understand the function of portions of a cell by comparing it to portions of a city. This is where I feel both the social theorists and biology teachers have made a mistake. Now, to understand a cell there needs to be a simultaneous understanding of how a city functions as a whole. There needs to be a fundamental understanding of biology and how organic beings function for Spencer’s analogy to be of any use. If biology is making assumptions to compare society to biology, and sociologists are making assumptions on top of that to compare biology to society, it becomes even more convoluted as the assumptions falsely reinforce each other.

I argue instead of understanding the functions of a cell in the context of a society or the functions of a society in the context of an organism there should be a strive to avoid analogies like this that create confusion and are incomplete in themselves. To use these analogies you have to criticize connections in two separate worlds and make connections which manage to make understanding more complex and oversimplified at the same time. The analogies of course don’t fit perfectly, but even if they did they just make understanding a cell or society more complex than it needs to be. Instead of comparing one to each other they should be explained without analogy. Instead there should be a focus on understanding what a mitochondria does for the cell itself without pretending a cell is a city just to turn it back into a cell again. I may not have had a simple phrase to throw on  but instead understood really what went on inside the cell without having to also understand what a post office does, (which is a lot more than move and sort packages, but just assume these assumptions are accurate for sake of argument.)  

The same applies for Spencer’s analogy. There is less error if a kinship system stays a kinship system rather than having to debate which system of a larger organic body to which it is most similar. Even if the analogies were to fit perfectly, it creates an extra step that needs to be debated and assessed in an attempt to simplify, it only makes the understanding more complex since there would have to be an equally complete of biology as well as society. Analogies don’t help anyone in these cases when there is desire to truly deeply understand a concept and should be avoided. At least I know the mitochondria is the powerhouse of cell, whatever that means. 

Human Nature and Parenting

Alan Sears’ A Good Book, In Theory shows the stark contrast two authors have when it comes to how they view human behavior.  A British man named William Golding wrote the well-known novel Lord of the Flies in 1954, which is about young boys who find themselves in a situation with no parental units. With no authoritative figure to keep them in line, things end up going south quickly. This book ultimately functions under the assumption that human nature is inherently bad and that we need to “tame” ourselves in order to correct and control these human desires. This theory on the human condition portrays people as in need of some form of structure (such as society or authority figures) to control these urges we all have inside – such as greed and violence – and without that structure we would run rampant and destroy ourselves (Sears: 101). This theory is pretty much shown in the movie Purge directed by James DeManaco in 2013 which I found to be completely unbelievable, but in this movie, the government allows for one day a year when there are no laws in place to keep people in check, thereby anything is legal and everyone runs around crazy, slaughtering each other. The movie is definitely on the extreme spectrum of this view.

The completely opposite side of this spectrum is the theory on human nature that states that people can self-govern, and in fact controlling too much can be a negative thing since people – and children especially – need to be given freedom because it allows for creativity and personal growth. Nearly 20 years after Lord of the Flies was written, Marge Piercy, an American woman, published her novel Woman on the Edge of Time, which displays this exact theory where the children weren’t seen as some savages that in anyway needed taming. Instead, the children interacted without restraint amongst the adults and didn’t receive the same level of restrictions because according to this theory human nature is “in essence” creative, not violent or savage. (Sears: 102)

This section of the text resonated with me because growing up, I loved the 2005 romcom titled Yours, Mine & Ours directed by Raja Gosnell. Well, to be honest, it might have just been that my mom played it too frequently, but the movie is about a dad with eight kids from previous marriages who parents his children in a style that is very structured and in every way a military style and a mom who bring her ten children into the marriage and is an artist or designer of some sort and is very hands off and allows the children freedom for their creative growth. This ends up being the source of conflict, which ultimately gets resolved through compromise, of course, but this movie shows exactly the two theories Sears was talking about since the dad’s style is very similar to the belief shown in Lord of the Flies and the mom is similar to Woman on the Edge of Time. I also thought it was an interesting coincidence that the genders of the authors for the novels coincide with the genders of the parents that enforce it in the movie, because in American society there is often the idea that the dad is the firm hammer and enforcer while the mom is more nurturing, allowing the children to grow, or whatever. I’ll have to watch these movies again with these theories in mind for fun soon and read the books Sears mentions for the first time as well.

-Jessi Hebert