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Or, the thoughts of several frustrated intellectuals on Sociology, Gaming, Science, Politics, Science Fiction, Religion, and whatever the hell else strikes their fancy. There is absolutely no reason why you should read this blog. None. Seriously. Go hit your back button. It's up in the upper left-hand corner of your browser... it says "Back." Don't say we didn't warn you.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Social Construction Who?

I'm not much of a t.v. fan and, as it happens, neither is my wife. Oh, we have shows that we enjoy but there aren't that many that we attempt to watch with any great regularity. For me, the only show I'm really committed to at the moment is Pushing Daisies, a rather bizarre little program that is something like a cross between Bewitched and a Joseph Heller novel. My wife, on the other hand, has recently been getting into the program Samantha Who?, starring Christina Applegate. This is, as a side note, why I doubt I will ever be able to get into watching this show: my memories of Kelly Bundy are just too strong. In any case, the show is predicated on the notion that the protaganist has retrograde amnesia, so she cannot remember anything about her past. That said, she retains her powers of speech, movement, and general skills so the amnesia is more or less limited to her episodic memory. This is the most common way that amnesia is depicted,* though in some ways the most uncommon. Head trauma that only interferes with the recall of episodic memory is a little like dropping a harddrive and losing only the .doc files. A crude and horribly inaccurate analogy, but sufficient to make the point. I do, however, digress.

Because of the retrograde amnesia the protaganist, Samantha, is depicted as a nearly-perfect tabula rasa- she has no particular personality, no desires, no idea what her life goal was. It is as though she is becoming a person once more from scratch. During last night's episode Samantha learned that she had previously suffered from "father issues" and that she was the subject of a restraining order for stalking a previous boyfriend. Of course, having lost her memory, she is neither interested in stalking her victim and no longer suffers from father issues.*** As such, she sets out to both locate and reassure her previous prey that she is no longer obsessed with him and to develop a healthy relationship with her father. Unfortunately, and humorously, she has to resort to theft of paperwork and considerable persistence to locate her stalk-ee and has a great deal of difficulty connecting with her father. In both cases this is becuase these other individuals continue to respond to Samantha as though she were the same person she had been, rather than a new individual. Their behavior towards Samantha, quite unintentionally, ends up guiding her into repeating her previous behaviors.

Why am I discussing this? Well, simply because it seems like a great way to teach social construction. In sociology we often teach that the way individuals interact can help to define the nature of a situation. So, we collectively determine what a situation is (e.g. gathering of friends vs. business meeting) as well as what behaviors are appropriate and inappropriate. This sort of process occurs naturally each time we enter a situation but over time these definitions take on a more firm quality. Once a situation has been seen enough times, once a person has been encountered often enough, we do not need to construct their meanings fresh each time. Instead, we simply dust off our previous understandings and use them again. This is helpful to us as people because it reduces the burden on us but, at the same time, it can then be experienced as constraint. One does not wear scarlet to a funeral because it "isn't done," the situation has been thoroughly constructed and now acts on us as a set of external constraints. And interestingly enough, this is exactly what is happening to Samantha. While she, herself, is different, she is embedded in a set of relationships that come with a set of definitions and understandings. Other people continue to make use of those and, as a result, treat her in a way consistent with them. In a sense, the situation is constructed such that in order to participate in it she must adopt the very behaviors that her previous self exhibited.

Of course, this doesn't actually happen in the show. Samantha eventually leaves her stalk-ee alone and breaks through to a better relationship with her father. These are the staples of sitcoms, after all. In reality, however, there is often no choice but to conform. One cannot simply start haggling with Seven-Eleven employees over the price of a pack of gum no matter how much one wants to. This simple practice has been agreed upon as inappropriate for so long that it is beyond the power of any one individual, or even a small group of individuals, to change it.

And thus is the irony of social construction and, indeed, sociology in general: often the most powerful constraints on our behavior are those that we impose on ourselves.


* With the quasi-anterograde amnesia from the movie Memento as a notable exception.**

** I say "quasi" because if he truly had anterograde amnesia he would not, himself, be aware of it. Seriously.

*** At least within the context of the show. In reality, certain behaviors related to that are likely to be persistent even if there is no recall of the events that produced them.

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