Travelling North

Article – Things Men Define As Real


Things men define as real …….

In the early part of the 20th Century Florian Znaniecki left Poland to work at the University of Chicago, arriving just as the First World War broke out in Europe.  Over the next six years he completed a major study, The Polish Peasant in Europe and America, together with William Thomas.  The series of volumes were published between 1918 and 1920, and are regarded as a key step in the establishment of sociology as an empirical discipline.  Although Znaniecki alternated between living in Poland and the USA, he was regarded as one of the key founders of the Chicago School of Sociology, and his contribution was recognised during 1954 when he was the 44th President of the America Sociological Association

Today, that landmark study is remembered first for the observation “the things men define as real are real in their consequences”.  While often quoted as Thomas’ Dictum, it appears to have authored by Znaniecki, and succinctly captures the basis of theoretical approach in the social sciences that today is referred to as “the social construction of reality”.  What is meant by the social construction of reality?  In a nutshell, I think it can be summarised as a view about how we ‘see’ the world around us:  we do not make direct contact with the world outside our selves, but rather our sensory impressions are ‘constructed’ through mental processes.  Moreover, the means of construction are developed through social interaction and socialisation; we learn to see.

The philosophical basis for the social construction of reality approach is to be found in phenomenology – a path that goes from Heidegger to Husserl to Schutz.  It rests on the assertion that reality is always inaccessible, mediated both by the processes whereby sight, sound etc. are converted into mental constructs, and more importantly, by the mental models that we develop or acquire that allow us to make sense of what we apprehend.  The importance of the work of Znaniecki and others (Liebow, Whyte, and later, famously, Goffman) was that it gave a legitimacy to the importance of understanding other people’s ‘life worlds’ as a key part of sociology, linking sociology to developments in social psychology (where the work of people like Becker has been so important), and most important as far as I am concerned, to social anthropology (too many names to mention, but especially the influence of later thinkers such as Leach (my old teacher) Levi-Strauss etc.

At one level, it is easy to understand this approach.  Consider snow (there has been a lot of it to consider recently!).  When I look at the snow in my garden that is exactly what I see.  However, if I lived in an environment where snow was ever present (the stock example is among the Eskimos), then they see a great variety of types of snow, with different names, and each type of snow associated with important differences and properties.  Snow matters to them, and it is a substance of many forms.  I could have used the example of soil.  For farmers and viticulturists, soil is also not an undifferentiated substance, but a topic with many terms.  Eskimos and viticulturists see snow and soil quite differently from the way I see them; I have not learnt to attend to snow or soil, nor have I acquired a sophisticated framework to make sense of my observations.

Perhaps the idea is more profound than that.  Some see it as much more deeply embedded in framing our ‘life world’.  Do I see the same world as does an Australian aboriginal?  Language is a huge barrier, of course, but it seems that my way of categorizing people – father, mother, brother, sister, cousin – does not make sense when we explore how they see kinship.  It seems that their ‘equivalent’ of my terms like sister or cousin comprise a very different way of categorizing relationships.  Can we be sure?  This has always been the dilemma of social anthropologist.  The deeper an anthropologists gains insights into what it is like to be the member of a Yanomami tribe, or a Trobriand islander, the harder it becomes to explain the life world of the people being studied.  Every time a word is translated, it is changed subtly (or sometimes quite brutally) so that we can ‘understand’.  We are aware how hard it is to translate from something written in one language to another; it is so much more the case when we are using our language to attempt to describe how others see ‘their world’.

There is a lifetime of literature on these issues, and I am not competent to add to what has been said.  However, I am very interested in taking the idea of the social construction of reality, and applying it to some areas where a different perspective may help.  In particular, I would take Znaniecki’s thoughts in a rather different direction, applying it to some issues within contemporary US culture.  In recent months I have been spending some time exploring matters to do with economics and business leadership.  Do Znaniecki’s terms help me in these arenas?

Let me start with economics.  One fundamental assumption in economics is that the free market is the most efficient way to allocate resources.  As I have commented before, I see it rather differently; that it is not necessarily a good way to allocate resources, but it is better than all the other ways that are even worse (yes, that is a bit of stealing from Winston Churchill on democracy!).  The free market as a theoretical construct, in a world of economically rational human beings, with perfect information and perfect competition, does seem very efficient.  However, I live in a real world where people are not always (and sometimes not often) economically rational, where information is often limited or even distorted, and where competition is imperfect, monopolies exist, and the costs of externalities seldom figure in decision making.  I guess that is a distinction between pure economics, a theoretical discipline, and practical economics, which is an observational or empirical discipline.

However, while I am happy to make that distinction, it seems others are not.  If I ask about the effect of monopolies on competition and the allocation of resources, I am told that the market will resolve any monopolistic tendencies.  When I ask about the cost of pollution, I am reassured that the market will address these issues.  I am not reassured, and I watch the current battle over Duke Energy and its responsibilities for the coal ash spill that has taken place in North Carolina quite convinced that the market is not going to deal with this issue (nor, as I am writing right now, does it seem that the State Government is moving especially quickly, or in a way that is particularly effective).  That’s my view, but the free market does work, its adherents say, and any examples that are given to dissuade people from that belief are argued away.

Dopes this sound familiar?  Of course it does.  It is the same as post-Newtonian physicists ignoring and explaining away anomalies that their theories of the behaviour of the physical world appeared to miss.  It took a revolution in thinking, a new paradigm in science, to sort out those limitations, and now we are trying to deal with new and previously unrecognised anomalies that are appearing on the edges of a post-Einsteinian world.

Just a minute.  That’s a bit tricky.  It seems there are some stubborn ‘facts’ out there that persist in spite of frameworks and models.  We may choose to ignore them, or not pay attention to them, but in the hard world of the physical sciences, the objective world does make itself known irrespective of whatever theories we might develop.  Perhaps we should be a bit more careful about the social construction of reality, and suggest that we can apply this idea to the social world rather more easily than we can to the ‘objective’ world of the physical sciences (although I am aware this may be too quick a simplification, and that ‘objectivity’ in the physical sciences is still contested ground).

When it comes to the free market and its operations, I find that from time to time I simply cannot understand the views of others.  In part, I suspect, it is because we are debating theory and not how things work in practice.  However, even at the theoretical level, I can’t get inside the head of those that believe ‘the market will resolve any current imperfections in allocating costs and benefits.  We are simply seeing the world differently, and cannot help but talk past each other.

Since economics does have a body of theory, based on a set of rational (if unrealistic) assumptions, the complex mathematics that have been developed to bridge between theory and observed practice makes commentary difficult.  I am easily bamboozled by complex equations.  Let me go down a different path, and look at leadership:  at least there are no mathematical theories to content with here!  Of course, there is a voluminous body of writing on leadership (most of which is excessively boring and repetitious – but that’s another issue).  Much of it is centred on control, about setting directions (visions, missions, objectives), establishing ways to get there (rules, processes), and ensuring followership (motivating, planning, ensuring conformity).  There is an implicit model here, about what we mean by leadership.  I have some hesitation in saying this, given current and appropriate sensitivity about sexist interpretations of behaviour, but you might say that it reflects a rather masculine view of leadership.  Certainly, a number of women have written on leadership and have observed that they have only been able to progress to the top of a major organisation on the basis that they adapted to the prevailing paradigm of control, rules and regulations, together with the familiar background behaviours of alliance building, politicking and back-stabbing:  such behaviour is not natural to the way in which they think about working with other people, but it represents a way of behaving that can be copied.

Surely that is the way organisations are?  Machiavelli told us about organisations, and how to gain and keep power, and The Prince is an excellent handbook for those seeking to get to the ‘C-level’, (although he talked about Princes and States, the observations are easily transferred to the current business scene).  However, the comments of some women leaders do give us cause to pause for a moment.  Is there another way of thinking about leadership, another reality that can consequentially shape our behaviour?

It was Carol Gilligan, studying the development of girls and boys into adolescence and early adulthood who noted that there was a divergence in preferences.  Many boys and young men did have a preference for thinking about their world in terms of control, rules and regulation:  Gilligan suggested that this might be because many played sports where these were essential requirements to be allowed to join the game.  Many girls and young women were more inclined to have a preference for seeing things in terms of relationships.  It wasn’t an exclusive gender based differentiation, just an indication of preference.  In her study, this revealed some interesting differences in decision making, especially in the early teenage years.  Faced with dilemmas, the boys were more likely to address the issues in terms of the rules; many girls were more influenced by the network of relationships that surrounded a tricky issue.  Gilligan’s purpose in ‘A Different Voice’ was not to suggest girls and boys, or men and women, were fundamentally or exclusively different:  rather it was a study that revealed alternative ways of making sense, where one approach was more typically associated with boys, and the other more often a preference of girls.

Do her observations help us understand those women leaders who have admitted behaving as they saw the other (men) did?  Sally Hegelson, writing about leadership in organisations, drew on Gilligan’s work, and suggested that many women saw the organisation as more like a ‘web’ of interconnections, rather than as a pyramid of command and control.  She offered the provocative though that women often see themselves at the centre of the web, connecting with many others; for students of organisations, this was a intriguing reflection on studies that show that individuals rated as the ‘key staff’ in organisations are often not those at the top, but rather staff further down who are identified by the rich connections they have with others right across the company.

If you see leadership as being about command and control, you behave accordingly.  I am sure that you, like me, have observed those managers who are ‘good at the game’.  They build connections, find senior mentors, and carefully work their way up the organisation, responsible for some occasional collateral damage, ancillary casualties of the fight to get to the top.  That is neither a problem about leadership, nor something that needs to be addressed.  That is what leadership is.  Although he didn’t mean it to be a comment about men as compared to women, this does seem to be a case where “the things men define as real are real in their consequences”.

March 2014

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