Sociologists and journalists often assume that interviews and surveys of peoples’ opinions (about life, about themselves) are valuable data in understanding how and why social life operates the way it does.
This is a well meaning but wildly dubious inference that basically cannot be maintained without putting your head in the sand and ignoring much important work in fields like cognitive psychology and behavioral economics over the last two decades or more.
But, it persists.
It is an inarguable fact, established in countless studies, that people very often do not know why they engage in the behaviors they engage in. HOWEVER, they will certainly be happy to oblige your research with a post hoc, after-the-fact interpretation of their actions that sociologists diligently record and expect to build a science on.
Sociologists can no longer afford to be so embarassingly naive as to assume that we can learn about how society operates by simply asking people why they operate. This is inane and indefensible.
Our sociological impulse to ask people in order to learn about their behavior stems from our romanticization of our own species. Humans are intelligent, introspective, self-aware and self-monitoring animals that keep a constant, more-or-less accurate log of their motivations and experiences. Right? Wrong.
Certainly, asking a person why they did something is a source of data. People do give reasons for their actions, and these reasons do sometimes feed back on peoples’ behavior, potentially altering it in the future. But, no longer can this be our only source of data.
All is not lost.
If sociologists were able to watch the formation of identities and patterns of behavior in real-time (as they occur), we could then match self-reports with antecedent behaviors and begin to model human behavior in terms of distortions, misrepresentations, lies, confusions, half-truths, and forgotten truths. But how can we gather a captive population of humans to study?
One problem I have with sociology is its lack of imagination. If Kim Kardashian advertised on her show an offer for eligible young bachelors to come and live in her house and be filmed 24/7 in order to be deemed a ‘suitable’ or ‘unsuitable’ romantic catch for one of her rich debutante friends, men would sign up in droves.
They would happily put their lives on display 24/7 for a piece of fame. They might even consider it an adventure, or ‘trying something new’. Look at the success of reality shows that encourage people to prostitute their privacy for ratings – it’s rampant.
Why don’t sociologists exploit this? Why don’t sociologists put out an ad for people to be monitored 24/7 for some cash prize? We could study them, scale their identities (and changes in their identities) against their behavior and even, if we must, interview them so as to hear their nonsense explanations of their actions.
Would the IRB (‘Institutional Review Board’; a committee that judges whether or not scientific experiments are ethical) approve such an experiment? Do you think I fucking care? Do you think reality television cares about the IRB? Do you think participants in reality television care about the IRB?
Wake up, sociology.