A Reminder

(Harvey Molotch) begins by quoting Patricia Limerick ‘s assertion that academics are the people nobody would dance with in high school and adds, on his own account, that they are also the last people chosen for gym class ball teams. He describes his own youthful image of sociology as the work of some kind of amalgam of C. Wright Mills, Jack Kerouac, Lenny Bruce and Henry Miller, “all heroes who knew the world through its edges – deviant, strident, and/or dirty mouthed.” That is, if you want to write about society, you have to know about it firsthand, and particularly have to know about the places respectable people have little experience of: “the taxi-dance hall, the housing projects, the protest marches, the youth gang, and the dark places most of us know only as haunting hints of the possible”.

But, Molotch says, sociologists are not only not Kerouac, they are not even Louis Wirth or Herbert Gans (who studied Jewish and Italian ghettoes, respectively), and cannot “sustain a pattern of taking on even the ordinary outside settings. Sociologists often know no world outside their own academic and family daily round; they do not hang around commodity trading floors, or holy roller churches, or exclusive golf clubs. Committee meetings, teaching loads, peer reviews and writing essays like this are the occupation, leaving little space for walking through the world.” Without fuller participation in society (the title of Molotch’s essay is Going Out”), we don’t know the first things that would keep us from making dumb mistakes.

Molotch makes another interesting point, tangential to what I’m arguing here, but worth noting. Without knowledge based on firsthand experience to correct our imagery, we not only don’t know where to look for the interesting stuff, we also don’t know what doesn’t need extensive investigation and proof. Lacking personal knowledge, we assume that many ordinary things are among those great social science mysteries that need to be cleared up with a big study and a lot of data. An early version of Molotch’s diagnosis defined a sociology as someone who spends a hundred thousand dollars studying prostitution to discover what any cab driver could have told him.

– extracted from Howard Becker’s Tricks of the Trade (1998), chapter on Imagery

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