Sociology is a Science

Month: November, 2012

The Four Types of Reality

We foolishly use only one word to describe what confronts our senses.


This is what is “real,” it is “what we know,”  that which is “true,” and “out there,” “outside of our minds.”

Well, there are, it turns out, a few realities.

There is, first, your personal reality. This is the reality in your head, your subjective awareness. This is your conscious state, or the sensation of wakefulness upon waking up from sleep.

This where we feel love and anger and pain. This is where our opinions come from, as well as the worldviews which produce them.

Cognitive psychology tells us that human opinion is easily swayed through mental “heuristics,” which the brain produces to easily deal with complex problems in the environment. These heuristics are closely related to mental stereotypes and very often lead to very simplistic, illogical and error-prone thinking.

We also know that human opinion is powerfully pushed around by emotion. Social psychology knows now that most people, most of the time, come to their most cherished political and moral views entirely because of some emotional attachment or emotionally-charged perception. That’s it. The whole concern for logical consistency, evidence and plain old good-reasoning comes AFTER the belief or worldview has been fully accepted as true for emotional reasons.

So our personal realities, our subjective views, are almost tragically, hopelessly untrue.

These constant visions and experiences we call “reality” are, to make matters worse, interpreted through evolution’s own public relations firm: ego-enhancement. We tend to think that ideas we can identify with, feel comfortable with, feel safe and connected with are more likely to be real or true. Our beliefs are usually not only flatly false and a bit ridiculous but often magnificently self-serving.

Yet our inner reality FEELS real. And it is. It’s our personal, subjective reality. It’s just not really worth shit, outside of being able to feel intense emotional experiences.

But hold on, three other kinds of reality exist.

The second type of reality is social reality. This reality exists collectively, that is, it exists because it is shared by two or more personal realities.

When an idea, belief, worldview or whatever, is shared by at least two people (i.e., shared by two personal realities), it takes on a new character.

It’s easy to see that this kind of reality exists with a little trick.

Suppose you are an Occupy Wallstreet protestor (is that movement still happening? I’m a social scientist, so I try to learn about how humans work instead of supporting their political causes). Imagine you have a dream one night about painting a mural on the side of a building. You think that this piece of art will stimulate the protesting spirit of local youths in some truly unique and pathbreaking way.

Yet, imagine that your mural idea is just a little weird. A little off, maybe a little creepy, even. So, though you are personally convinced the mural idea is great, you can also imagine that other people might not find it to be so wonderful.

Now, imagine you attend some job-related social gathering a few weeks later and, offhandedly, tell a few of your colleagues about your dream and about your (somewhat weird) mural idea. Your co-workers smile and clap their hands almost involuntarily. A great idea, they say. That’s genius, and yet so obvious, how has nobody thought of that?

Now imagine how you would feel about your mural idea walking  home from that party. Compare this new,uplifted , feeling to the original doubts and uncertainty about the opinions of others that accompanied initially waking up from the dream.

The difference? Now it seems as though your mural idea really is, in fact, truthfully, in reality a good idea. As more people come to share this belief that the mural idea is good, the mural idea, literally, in social reality, BECOMES a good idea, simply because people believe it to be so. You feel this belief as increased motivation and excitement which wills you to further think about the mural idea.

Its brilliance has become socially real.

Shared personal realities constitutes a second type of reality, a social reality.

The third type of reality is objective reality.

Objective reality is what would exist even if there were no humans alive. It is what exists completely independently of our minds and our feelings and our experiences. When humans talk about “facts” they are referring to this objective reality.

This one’s easy to grasp. Let’s go back to the mural example.

Imagine everyone loves your mural idea and they think it will re-ignite the (dead? God, I don’t know!!) Occupy Wall Street movement. Several unbiased people you know like your idea, and so this idea is now truly, and in social reality, a great idea.

Yet it fails. Fails terribly and pathetically. Suppose your name was “Hailey.” Your mural goes over so horribly, you are legally re-named “Faily” by your scorned parents. Moreover, that mural of a young Mexican boy vigorously fucking a defeated bald eagle (Take THAT America!) draws lawsuits that bury you for decades.

So, in your personal reality, on account of your dream, the mural idea was awesome. In social reality, on account of the shared perceptions of others, your idea was awesome. In objective reality, however, your idea was false — it was calibrated to incite protestors and it simply didn’t.

Lastly, there is a very special kind of reality.

We’ve only been able to truly comprehend this reality for roughly 500 years, but there have been those who’ve had glimpses of it for thousands of years…

Remember that personal realities are embedded in the social reality. Social reality is just a collection of personal realities.

But social reality doesn’t always meet up with objective reality. Sometimes it does, I suppose,  but because objective reality is “outside” of our heads and “outside” of human awareness, our human realities (personal and social) don’t always line up with objective reality. Hell, this why the mural idea failed…

Without further ado, the fourth type of reality is shared objective reality. We perceive this reality when our social realities line up with objective reality.

You would have experienced this type shared objective of reality if your mural idea had ACTUALLY worked. It would have worked because it would have actually tapped into a latent, unmet need of protestors for motivation. It didn’t do this, and that’s why it failed so terribly.

So, then, I propose to you four realities.

As a sociologist, I think these are the four realities that matter: personal, social, objective and shared objective.

Hmm….Oddly, my mind just blanked.

I don’t think I have anything more to say on this.


The Ayn Rand Effect


Ayn Rand was a brilliant Russian writer, satirist and political commentator.

She was sickeningly smart, oftentimes simply dominating interviews and, almost of necessity, turning them into informing, intriguing lectures.

Youtube her for chrissakes, it’s really something.

Smart Lady.

Sociologically dense as a lead brick, however. Dumber than a Catholic priest applying for a coaching job at Penn State. She was sociologically retarded, but I’ll get there in a second.

Her otherwise brilliant wit and reason has captivated political conservatives in our country.  To followers, her message is one of liberation and of freedom.

Ayn Rand’s philosophy is misanthropic. It states that altruism is evil because you are entitled to the fruits of your labors and abilities; anyone who would suck them from you (for whatever need or personal weakness) takes your life from you.

Humans have one absolute reason for life — to live. We are to grow, to create and to foster others to do the same.

Weakness is to be punished or eradicated. Weakness and lack of success may be the result of lack of effort or lack of ability — either way, no good.

Weakness is non-adaptive and weakness definitely isn’t to be rewarded or subsidized with help from the strong willed and (economically) successful.

Getting the idea?

Ayn Rand speaks to the men and women who have had enough of peoples’ GODDAMN constant fucking demands and crises and cries for help. Ayn Rand speaks to people who have found themselves needing to turn down the noise in their lives, people who’ve had to ditch the deadbeat lover, the abusive mother, or the cruel best friend.

Ayn Rand speaks to those of us who have been smart and self-aware enough to watch ourselves get hurt and remember the pain vividly and continuously. This is the mark of an active brain, a high need-for-cognition even.

But this is a brain focusing on interpersonal pain. Interpersonal anger, pain and regret are not the best emotional lenses through which to analyze social policy.

So, of course, the Ayn Randers of the world think that taxing the wealthy (the “strong and successful”) is obviously immoral, as their very success helps all of us. It sets an example, and the wealthy produce more wealth and new products. Why take their money, their livelihood, the very fruits of their creativity and adaptiveness?

Why hurt or punish those doing so economically well, those resisting temptation and outworking the rest of us?

The biggest problem is that Ayn Randers tend to forget that people in our lives hurt us for all kinds of reasons. Some were vindictive and seemed to enjoy being mean. Others were clearly abused by others and helpless to notice their attacks. Others were peer-pressured into saying or doing things they probably otherwise would not have done.

On a demographic, or macro-social, scale, the same is true of populations of people. Some populations of people are just angry and vindictive (KKK, for example), other populations of people have been clearly abused by others and are largely helpless to notice their source of their needs (in the US, African Americans and Hispanics and Persians and Arabs; in Ireland Protestants and Arabs; in Iran and Saudi Arabia… uh…all women), and so on.

Ayn Randers have to understand that some populations of people, just like some individuals, can be totally fucked from the beginning through no fault of their own…

The corollary to horribly abusive parents and bad genes (individual level of analysis), is systematic institutional (hiring/wage/promotion gaps at all levels of occupational prestige) and cultural racism (disproportionate demographic concentration in low-resource communities), which constitutes a population level of analysis.

So some people just got (and get) fucked; so also do some populations of people.

Following the Ayn Randers, in life everyone gets a fair shot and ingenuity, creativity and willpower decides who wins.

In reality a lot of individuals just didn’t get a fair shot, but we have to remember that oftentimes this is so because individuals exist within populations. So…on that point…the “SUCCESSFUL” aren’t necessarily the most successful…some of them are, no doubt.

But others may have just had the dice thrown with a little a bit more luck where their demographic counterpart, in another neighborhood, in another skin color, in another family with another history, got unlucky.

Ayn Rand’s edifice falls apart if we understand that many social dynamics that occur on individuals also occur on populations.

That is, primate groups act similarly to primate individuals, lest we forget that I’m talking about dirty stinky apes.

Ah, humans. So the conservatives bone up with this Ayn Randism. Paul Ryan, Romney’s VP pick, was a loyal follower of the Cult of Rand. He required his interns in Washington to read her philosophy.

The whole don’t tax the rich idea rests on the notion that we all get a fair shot to do well from the beginning. Well we don’t.

And let me make it very fucking clear that many white kids, whose parents were either too abused, too high, or too far economically disadvantaged also don’t get a fair shot. We just don’t ever realize this because everyone today seems to assume that “whiteness” presupposes some automatic and intense privilege. Sorry, but even more than skin color, economic resources really matter; in many of life’s crises, money talks in a way skin doesn’t.

To summarize, then:

If Herman Cain and Bill Cosby had one too many appletini’s during a solitary “political evening” together, and bequeathed a child to the world, this child would be Ayn Rand. Though, I imagine, vastly more humorous and considerably less frail and barren.

Enough said, I think.


* If you think I mis-characterized Rand, say so goddamnit!

Letter To My Students


I am a Teacher’s Assistant (“TA”) at a research university in Southern California

The credentials for this job are a BA

The credentials for this job are nothing

I’ve just graded 900 papers in less than one week

This, in addition to my (numerous) other responsibilities

It’s getting to be where ivory tower work feels like blue collar work; I’ve done both

The former, at best, a mind-freeing nudge

The latter, at best, the upholding of someone else’s paycheck with one’s own toil

Grunt work

I gave none of you the grades you deserved

I could not have without first,

Being idiosyncratically clear with exactly how I grade, why, and what this means to you. YOU.

Re-defining, re-contextualizing and re-framing issues, examples and concepts that for whatever developmental, socio-psychological or economic issue, you may have found unclear throughout the course

Been vastly, vastly more attentive (than I am quite likely capable of being) with regard to those who are learning English as a second language

I speak in layered ways at times; I’m utterly comfortable with the language of my birth, which is English

I spent four years ‘learning’ Spanish in school. Being white, I knew I didn’t really have to learn it.

I’m ashamed to say that, but that’s un-earned sociological privilege as I am now an institutional gatekeeper

And many of you, as a consequence, might not have done so well on your paper tonight

Or, maybe you just didn’t try. Didn’t give a shit about your writing or your typos or how well you explained readings.To these people, I proffer a solemn and fantastic FUCK YOU. There are so many of you I would probably literally kill if you were standing next to me while I was forced to read this absolute feces of the written word.

Honestly, though, many of you just got fucked

I just can’t pay attention to 900 pages and most of your peers don’t really give a damn

I failed you, and I very, very, easily could have helped you

You never came to office hours, or never asked me very considered questions in emails

Hell, I can tell you are smart because you write well or, if you write like shit, you sound great in office hours

I can SEE, in you, potential

There are those of you who are coming back to school after braving the military, raising children, or fighting a disease

I guarantee you’ll just float into mediocrity

I can do no other

60, 78,85,65,83,62,79,70,85,81,88 …

Sometimes, I’m just thoughtless as to what variables explain this variance

To you I’m really really

I’m sorry

A Short Theory of Gender Oppression




It’s been a while since I’ve written. A period of semi-insanity has kept me away, but drugs have fixed this. It’s true.

I’m currently writing on drugs. I hope this doesn’t become obvious.

I’ve been asked, for amusement’s sake, to produce an intriguing theory, for which evidence exists, and by which intrigue is produced. I was also asked to write something that appealed to the emotions, instead of the intellect. This is my answer to the former request:

I think I can explain gender oppression. Gender oppression is the social and political dominance of women. Both men and women can be guilty of it and its most classic form in the modern age is the female job applicant who is turned down at a law firm for the simple reason that, because she is a woman, she’d probably be “too soft, and tender-hearted to conduct a proper cross examination.” This is economic gender oppression because a woman is being denied work because of a stereotype about womens’ abilities.

Women have it MUCH better now, though, than they had it in agrarian (animal and farm-driven economies) or horticultural (farm-driven economies) societies. Women are generally treated as fully subordinate to males in the former (Iran is an industrializing agrarian society…enough said) and not always much better in the latter.

Women have it comparably better in foraging societies, like hunter-gather groups. In these types of societies, men generally do the hunting (because they are faster and stronger), and women tended to gather certain, select fruits and nuts and raise  the children.

On most nights, the men come up empty handed in their hunting trips.  Luckily, The fruit and nut and plant foraging, done largely by the women, provides a consistent and dependable staple of nourishment for the tribe. Meat is rare, but fruit and nuts plentiful; women are respected members of the tribal  economy at the foraging-group level, and their political power within the group (in terms of important decision making about where to set up camp, how to deal with difficult group members, theft, death) is parallel to and not quite super-ceded by men.

It is, of course, true, that MOST tribes of this kind that are known to anthropology and sociology are, ultimately, headed by a male leader. Males do hold the ultimate authority and tend to make the critical decision in cases of tribal disputes.

After all, men are 15% bigger on average than women and tend to have more of their body devoted to muscle mass (and while having, on average, less body fat). Men are, on average, taller and their voice, on average, deeper and more “booming” (more bass). It’s a fantasy to think that these factors wouldn’t give men an innate advantage in dominance in a primate species.

All of this aside, in most foraging societies, women have considerable authority and, oftentimes, elder females are given considerable say in tribal matters.

Why is this situation as it is? Why are women treated just about equally in small foraging societies?

I propose two reasons for this equity. First, women are depended on for the acquisition of  important (critical, even) resources — food and child nourishment.  This is what was discussed above. This is  the economic-social aspect.

The second reason women have equity in these societies is because of the density and small size of the groups. This reason is much more complicated than the (rather obvious) economic one.



Robin Dunbar, an Oxford anthropologist and primatologist, estimates that the connective neural tissue comrpising our neocortex (in the frontal lobes of the brain) is only sufficiently  dense enough to process the inner social life of UP TO 150 people.

In other words, Dunbar has estimated a cognitive limit on the social processing of the human brain. We can’t imagine what it’s like to be more than 150 people at any one time. We can’t sympathize with more than this, we cant empathize, we cant even seriously contemplate the state of actors beyond this limit. This is known colloquially as “Dunbar’s number”. So, we can PROCESS 150 mental states. This is the human brain at its processing limit. It operates optimally around 1-30.

Interestingly, all of human evolution up to the VERY RECENT present took place in small communities of between 50-150 animals. Homo Erectus, our 1.8 million year old not-quite-human brothers and sisters lived in slightly smaller groups of roughly around this size. Their slightly smaller group size, indicated by the placement of fossils, is predicted by their probable neocortex size, which is determined by the cranial capacity of these fossils.

Anyway, so the human brain experiences diminishing returns in social processing past about 30 human beings. This was not a problem in foraging societies. Right? Because the foraging societies known to anthropology exist as roughly 30 people, in a community of about 150-300.

This is important because, once foraging tribes decide to start planting food and harvesting crops, they can settle in one place for a long time (hunting and gathering groups are nomadic, chasing plants and animals, etc.) This is horticultural society. Once they are settled in a single place (with farms), children are borne more often and more of them live. Crops are a dependable source of food (in a way hunting  alone is not), enabling many mouths to be fed, so long as seasons are predictable and soil is good.

Most importanlty, the communities are no longer  nomadic, chasing plants and animals. This means that women don’t have to limit the number of children they have, or commit infanticide, because they are worried that the group might have to embark on a long on-foot trek to some new area; children are HEAVY to carry and are very eager mouths to feed.

Raising children can now constitute a “full time job” for the first time in human history.

There is something else, though. This increase in child-birthing produces, to put it very simply, a lot of OTHER MEN. Yea, other guys.

You see, in a foraging society, the small number of people means that all of the men know each other. They have a rapport. They know of each others’ personalities. For better or worse, men in these foraging tribes feel as though they have a sense of the motives and personalities of the other men.

As tribes settled down and populations multiplied (ultimately leading to the present day), then, each individual man is likely to be forced to assume the awareness of a generally large number of unknown other men.

Unlike a foraging tribe, societies with populations beyond our cranial capacity’s limit produce the general problem of men having to assume the intentions of unknown other men.

This becomes important because men have a general evolutionary interest in the paternity of the children they raise. Evolution from the gene’s eye point of view suggests that men have an innate concern for the sexual fidelity of their desired romantic partners. This is largely because children take a lot of time and effort to raise, so its important from the genetic point of view that the father be raising HIS baby. Put simply, men want to know that their wife has THEIR baby (i.e., genes) in her, and not someone else’s.

When (literally) countless other men exist in a society, beyond the processing ability of the human mind to comprehend, men assume the worst when their daughters go through puberty. Far from initiating a formal, tribal right of passage, puberty in a mass society often engenders fears of vulnerability and male predatory violence. It’s a disgusting fact that much (but not most) of the interpersonal violence in the world is man on woman.

This, finally, is the socio-cognitive aspect. I told you it would take a while. Our brains are limited, and when the population density of a society increases beyond the brain’s capacity to properly process all of the social interactions, new strategies of controlling valuable resources (like women’s sexuality) arise. Female fertility is a valuable resource because of its genetic value. Where men feel they understand and have a rapport with (i.e., their cognitive capacities are sufficient to comprehend  the mental states of) other men, this valuable resource (female fertility) needn’t be “defended” in any vigorous sense (where these rapports are generally stable and positive as they must be in a small cooperative band of people).

Where men feel awash in strangers with unknown intentions (a consequence of increases in population density on account of societal economic changes), they become defensive and protective of female sexual resources.

So, to the person who asked me to write this, I do hope that makes you think. I find it to be a rather complete general theory of gender oppression, though specific cultural oppressions deserve special theories of culture and socio-biology.

Who said sociology was limited and lacked interdisciplinary scope? Who said sociology is inherently phobic to the biological? Who said the study of gender had to be engulfed in post-modern defecations and ethnographic banalities?

I was also asked by this person to write something else. Not something to tickle the mind. Something to tickle the emotions. I’m only putting this in writing to force myself to actually write it.

And now, the drugs are wearing off…