Biography and the Sociological Imagination: Contexts and Contingencies

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Biography and the Sociological Imagination: Contexts and Contingencies

Shanahan and Macmillan

Let’s start with the sociological imagination – what does C. Wright Mills mean by the sociological imagination? What is its significance for studying the life course?
Notes from Intro

p. xi – Mill’s advocates “that the study of human behavior should begin with humans, their behavior, and their settings, and not with highly abstract concepts that are imposed on people and their situations. The behavioral scientist, then, should start with the individual and ask what features of society produce such a person. According to Mills, the seemingly “personal” problems of one’s biography are better understood as repercussions of broad social tensions, and he proposes the “sociological imagination” to empower people to think about how their lives reflect historical and social forces:

The sociological imagination enables its possessor to understand the larger historical scene….. [read this indented quote onto next page of text].
In essence, he is making an argument for studying person, place and time in their particulars. His essay was a call for studying society and biography but it didn’t tell us how to do that.
Life course sociologists have been trying to study this connection between society and biography since the 1970’s. They have certainly added to Mills’ ideas two key things:

1) it matters how old you are when things happen to you – the meaning you derive from that experience is dependent upon your age; and

2) biographies must be considered individually and collectively – you can see in one person’s life both their unique social experiences as well as their common experiences that are experiences of the whole community.
Shanahan and Macmillan are building on this foundation and expanding life course sociology in this book.

Read p. xiii, 2/3rd down the page, paragraph before the “Guideposts” subheading

“This book builds on the constructive…..”
So what is life course sociology? Let’s turn to chapter 1 to get a better understanding of this subfield of sociology.
Read from pp. 3 and 4

p. 3 – “It is a truism reaffirmed by the birth of every child: no two lives are the same and each one of us is unique among the billions of people who have ever lived and who will ever live.

And yet it is also a truism that the human condition brings with it a set of seemingly universal experiences.”
p. 4 top – “…lives are similar in how they are “structured”: people begin life as infants and proceed through a series of phases including childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and old age.”
Further down on p. 4 – “In fact, every phase of life has its unique images, opportunities, and limitations, all of which shape who we are, creating commonalities in our experiences and life patterns. And so, although it may appear contradictory at first glance, we can accurately observe that every life is different and every life is the same.”
Shanahan and Macmillan spend some time in chapter 1 discussing how sociology comes to deal with this dualism through the development of life course sociology.

Notes from Chapter 1 – What is the Life Course?

  • How sociology fits into the behavioral sciences

  • How sociology has typically looked at biography

  • How life course sociology emerged to address weaknesses in traditional sociological views

The Behavioral Sciences and Sociology

  • Science – let’s first understand science

    • Read first full paragraph on p. 5 under sub-heading The Nature of Science

      • “Science is part of a distinct worldview called empiricism, which…”

    • Empirical research, studies based on systematic observation, is not enough however. You also need theory.

      • Theory helps organize observations into coherent accounts of reality.

      • P. 7 – “A scientific theory refers to a set of logically interrelated statements that include concepts. In turn, these statements lead to a hypothesis, or prediction, which identifies observations that are most useful.”

  • Behavior – so what is behavior?

    • Read last paragraph on p. 7 – “The common definition refers to any action or reaction that a person has to external or internal stimuli….”

      • Very broad definition

      • Includes such things as interacting with individuals, studying, talking, walking, personality, motivation, etc.

  • So behavioral sciences are the systematic study of behavior

    • Psychologists do this by assuming that behavior is fundamentally about the workings of the mind (cognition, emotion, motivation, etc.)

    • Economists do this by assuming that behavior can best be understood in terms of using resources to maximize one’s life chances and enjoyment

    • Sociologists do this by suggesting that “biography is fundamentally shaped by our relationships with other people and by the social structures that contextualize these relationships.” P. 8 bottom

      • P. 9 – social structures refer to “organized patterns of behavior or experience that persist in space and time and which are created by two or more people.”

        • Social structure refers to relationships and interactions among people or groups of people

        • Elements of social structure

          • Groups – dyads, triads, companies, etc. pp. 9-10

          • Statuses – positions one holds within those groups p. 10

          • Roles – expectations people hold of you in a status – codes, schema, rules governing behavior – p. 11

        • Read p. 11 – last paragraph – definition of social structure – “social structure refers to a complex, multifaceted set of phenomena that define a person’s situation. These forces create the opportunities and constraints that fundamentally shape our lives…….”

        • P. 12 – “lives are powerfully shaped by the social circumstances into which we are born and which continue to shape us throughout our lives. Such circumstances ultimately produce unique, yet structured, biographies.”

Sociology and Biography

  • Taking a sociological perspective on who we are and why we are who we are.

    • Ask students, how did you get to college? Why are you here? What got you to this point in your life?

    • P. 13 – “Most people see their lives and the lives of others as resulting from personal efforts, talents, shortcomings, personality, intelligence, and the like. In contrast, the sociological view directs us to look at a person’s life story as a social creation, reflecting a complex web of social forces peculiar to a historical time and place.”

  • The Sociological Classics

    • Began understanding people’s lives in terms of the larger social context and social structure

    • The founders of sociological thought were writing during a time of great change, modernization. They were observing and documenting what they saw as historical change (modernization) leading to changes in the nature of society, the behavior of people and the ways in which self and society interact.

    • So the classics give us a strong connection between social change and behavior

      • Marx

      • Durkheim

      • And set the stage for three lines of research

        • Character in Society

        • Intergenerational relations and conflicts

        • Social Structure and Personality

Line of Research

Sociological Researchers

Main Points


Character in Society

Interested in the nature of society and how it shaped the identities of a people; a character of a nation or society

Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd (1961)

Heavily rooted in classic sociology – Marx, Durkheim, Tonnies

- links characteristics of a society (fertility, mortality, modes of production, technology) to characteristics of the persons inhabiting these different societies

  • Tradition-directed

  • Inner-directed

  • Other-directed

- no or little attention paid to biography – read p. 24, first full paragraph

  • Horowitz makes a similar critique further down on p. 24 to 25 – “the motivation driving…”

- most of classic sociological research had little, if any, empirical basis – p. 25

- p.25 “these works tend to fall short of describing how people in the same society can be both similar and different – failed to recognize that individuals have different motives p.26

Intergenerational Linkages

- p. 26 “interested in the idea of generations and sought to understand how cultural heritage is transmitted through history from parent to child and, in turn, how the process of intergenerational transmission creates opportunities for social change.”

Mannheim’s “The Problem of Generations” (1952)

Keniston’s essays on youth in the 1960s

Draws upon Erikson’s work

pp. 26-27 – defines generation; explains continuity and change from generation to generation

p. 27 – “youth is a period of life marked by tension between self and society.” Explaining “activists” vs “hippies”

- research in this tradition was not empirical in any rigorous fashion

- p. 29 – did not concern itself with biography – “Generational research did not focus on the developmental processes by which cultural heritage is and is not transmitted, but rather took each generation’s identity as a given and proceeded to examine points of agreement and slippage between the old and the young.”

Social Structure and Personality

Addressed linkages between multifaceted social structures and features of the person

James House defines this perspective on p. 29, first full paragraph, read it

Inkeles & Smith Becoming Modern (1976)

Kohn’s Class and Conformity (1989)

p. 30 – “sought to document how people in societies characterized by various levels of modernity differed in their attitudes, values, and behavior.” Methods p. 30, Findings p. 31

p. 32 – Kohn argues that social class affects parenting behaviors by way of values parents have for their children.

Pos. - p. 30 “first line of sociological research attempting to link specific features of society with specific attributes of the person in an empirically rigorous fashion.”

Pos. - p. 31 – elaborates classical sociology’s theme of pre-modern vs. modern and actually measures people and their settings

Pos. - p. 34 – “sought to explain variability in actual human behaviors in actual social settings.”

Pos. - p. 34 – unit of analysis was people rather than time or place

Neg. – p. 34 – typically viewed life in static terms – failed to consider how people age in a changing society

The Emergence of Life Course Sociology
p. 35, paragraph midway on page – “What was lacking up to this point was a perspective, more complex than prior conceptualizations, that viewed both the society and the person in dynamic temporal terms. Life course sociology arose to meet this challenge in the 1970s. The watershed work in this development was the 1974 publication of Glen H. Elder Jr.’s Children of the Great Depression.”
Who can tell us about Elder’s work?

- research is summarized on pp. 35-38

- discussion of the Berkeley sample on p. 37
What is the significance of Elder’s work?

- pp. 38 – 39

  • By studying linkages between social change and how people aged, Elder pointed the way for a new mode of analysis in the study of society and biography

  • Viewed the experience of history as fundamentally the story of parents and their children (in keeping with intergenerational tradition)

  • Focused on both familial generations, parents and their children (different from Mannheimian tradition)

  • Located children in history by their birth year – birth cohort (different from Mannheimian tradition who located people in a broader category – generation)

  • It was empirical research of real people in real settings (similar to Social Structure and Personality tradition)

  • Avoided the problem of assuming that sociohistorical context shapes all people the same way

  • Promoted a thoroughly multifaceted and interactive view of aging, which means that they viewed development as contingent on many factors.

  • Rejected was the simplistic view, implicit in classical sociology, that social and historical forces have the same effects on all people

The Life Course as a Concept

  • Life course – p. 40 – refers to the “age-graded sequence of roles, opportunities, constraints, and events that shape the biography from birth to death.”

  • Age-graded – p. 40 – “means that the roles and events of the life course occur in predictable ways with respect to age.”

    • Examples listed in top paragraph on p. 40

    • P. 40 second paragraph – “The life course thus defines the biography as a dynamic social construction. S we pass through the phases of life, social institutions and people provide opportunities and constraints that are tailored tour chronological age and our “social age,” reflecting the social roles that we inhabit.”

  • Two important ideas follow from this definition of life course:

    • Pp. 40-41 – “the age-graded roles that make up the life course are embedded in society’s institutions and organizations.”

      • Educational roles reflects the structure of the education system

      • Work roles reflect the structure of labor markets

      • Life course, to a large degree, reflects how society is organized

    • P. 41 – “no phase of life can be understood in isolation from the other phases”

      • “each life phase is intimately linked with past roles and experiences and also anticipates “possible futures.”

      • Good example of Berkeley boys developing dysphoria in adulthood

      • This is not to say that early experiences dictate or completely determine what will happen later

  • The Life Course as a concept and eventually a paradigm emerged with Elder’s work – Children of the Great Depression

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