Researching social minds and motives

“The researcher is a variable in the research design. The social and cultural setting of the researcher affects not only the choice of problem but also the use of particular methods and modes of collecting and analyzing data.” (Sjoberg 1997: xvi)*

At the University of Texas at Austin sociology department, Gideon Sjoberg, a longtime professor there, taught me how to study the sociology of knowledge. Taking his classes was one thing, but more formatively, he gave me five years of three-, sometimes four-hour conversations, in the Union, almost always at night — he was apparently a night owl — during which he passed on to me what added up to a research program to study ‘social minds’ (Mead 1934). I came to focus on Dewey, Mead, and Mills. The usefulness of this pragmatist social-psychology came to be confirmed in a number of ways, but initially it was by reading contemporary social theory. World heavyweights like Habermas, Alexander, Giddens, and, especially, Bourdieu, had built similar sociology-of-knowledge, social-psychological frameworks to study economics, politics, and culture.** Habermas based half his theory of communicative action on Mead. Bourdieu was more circumspect, but undeniably his ‘habitus,’ for example, had a lot in common with Dewey’s ‘habit.’ Who built on Mills? That’s a complex answer, I think. Some argue Mills was merely a “gonzo sociologist” (see this), but that would take ignoring, for example, the very important contribution Mills made, in 1940, at the age of twenty-four, to the social understanding of motives, in an article published in the American Sociological Review. Mills wrote:

“Rather than fixed elements ‘in’ an individual, motives are the terms with which interpretation of conduct by social actors proceeds.” (1940: 904)

This paper stands the test of time. I would argue, if you take out the word “terms,” and replace it with images, you have a theory of motivated behavior fit to study the intellectual property, Facebook, marketing, data, code, networking age in which we find ourselves at the moment. In fact, the study of culture, using reflective methods not unlike those of Sjoberg, Bourdieu, Habermas, Mead, Dewey, and Mills, is contributing in marketing, business, and fields of private interest as we speak.

* Full citation: Sjoberg, Gideon. 1997. “Reflective Methodology: The Foundations of Social Inquiry.” In A Methodology for Social Research (with a New Introductory Essay). Waveland Press: Prospect Heights, Il.

** Habermas and Alexander employ social-psychological frameworks to improve upon Parsons’ AGIL system. The resultant multidimensional perspective is evident throughout their respective empirical works on the public and civil spheres. Bourdieu’s sociology of knowledge is often used to improve upon economistic, rational choice, and/or neoliberal theories. Giddens, I don’t know enough to say.

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