On: The Tyranny of Definitions

In the ISW yesterday, one of the instuctors (who has very…. soft…. voice… and… takes…. forever…. to… say… anything…. at. all..) asked this room of Sociologists to define what a sociologist is.

See, don’t ever ask this question to a room full of sociologists, because all you are going to get is aggrivation. We haven’t even agreed on the “socio” part, let alone what, assuming we could define it, we are supposed to do with it (the “logist” part). We will hem and haw, and tell stories of how when people ask us what we do, we have a difficult time verbalizing it, how our parents have no clue what to tell other parents “My kid is doing his Phd. in Sociology! No, I have no idea what he does.” Someone inevitably brings up that old DeVry Institute of Technology commercial where the lady says “I got a degree in Sociology. Then I came to DeVry and got a diploma that actually makes me hirable!”

This morning, I took a long walk outside. The air was warm and everything in this city seemed to gel for a minute, I had music… it was great. I was listening to (surprise surprise) Destroyer’s Rubies (I just cannot let go of this… have I mentioned how great it is?), and there is a song where Dan Bejar yowls:

You can huff and you can puff but you’ll never destroy that stuff.
Finally, I see why, I suppose…
Kid, you better change your feathers cause you’ll never fly with those things…

This lyric smacked me in my tiny brain (you know what they say…), and triggered the previous day’s discussion where I think I lamented something to the fact “what are we even doing here if we can’t define “Sociology” and my own answer to what a Sociologist does: “they make dreams come true.”

I would like to reverse my opinion here.

The thing about the ambiguity of definition is that it gives us room to breathe, to move the furnature around. We are not limited by a single concrete definition, as we see what this has done to other fields (looking right at you Mr. Economics). We can change our feathers when we realize that we are stuck on the ground. Believe me, we are definitely stuck on the ground.

We have thousands of people around the world. Intelligent people. Compassionate, passionate people. Standing on the ground flapping their arms as fast as they can to get some lift off. Needless to say, this looks a little rediculous when you step back and watch. I am right there with them. Flapping away, and the more I flap, the more rediculous I feel.

Time to stop, sit down and try something new. We are never going to destroy that stuff until we do.

In that same song, “Looters Follies” Bejar also sings the following lyric. I leave it with you.

Why can’t you see that a life in art and a life of mimicry – it’s the same thing!?!

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