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Posts Tagged ‘TV

black mirror’s nosedive episode; also sf and social theory

If you don’t already watch Black Mirror, it’s worth checking out, especially now that you get can get every episode on Netflix. It’s a wonderful science fiction/horror anthology, sort of a modern Twilight Zone, but with more of a focus on technology. The first episode of the latest season, Nosedive (see some reviews here and here, but spoilers!) is truly excellent. Bryce Dallas Howard plays a woman, Lacie, who is at once vulnerable and ambitious, smiling with a too-obvious strain at everyone she passes.  She smiles so hard because she’s literally being rated for each interaction. That’s the amazing premise of this episode: a facebook-like app gives everyone an averaged rating of between 1 and 5, and each interaction is a new chance to change your score.

There’s a lot going on there, and a tremendous amount that’s useful for us to think (and teach) with as sociologists.  First, there’s the obvious connection to the current pressure to like (and be liked!) on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media platforms.  It’s also important that the main character here is a woman, and that so many of the interactions she has are also with women. The increased emotional labor expected of women (from men, of course, but also from women) is an important sociological insight, and it’s not surprising it’s reproduced online.

Yet what struck me even more about this episode is what it shows—albeit totally obliquely—about the micro-macro link.  The rich and powerful all have very high ratings, and while we never really find out how (surely the rich are sometimes jerks?) we get a sense of it through observing the interaction rituals Lacie goes through everyday. She wants to make sure she gets a 5 as often as possible, and a 5 from someone with a higher rating is weighted heavier.  As such, she has an incentive to give a 5 to everyone with higher status than hers, in the hopes that they’ll reciprocate.  Yet they obviously have less incentive to rate her highly, not least because her rating of them carries less weight in the metrics.

Those differences have real stakes: Lacie is basically “middle class” in that she’s in the low 4s.  Once you start getting less than that, many perks and privileges are taken away from you.  I kept thinking of Erving Goffman and Randall Collins as I watched the show, and also of recent work by people like Julia Ticona and Sherry Turkle. Which is to say: there’s a lot there, and I’d be interested in people’s thoughts.

Along those lines, it’s worth thinking about how science fiction as a genre provides great heuristics that push to 11 things that are already happening: in this case, what if everyone was rated on a 1 to 5 scale? What’s great about that is how similar it is to a certain way of thinking about social theory.  A good social theory simplifies a lot of complex social noise into an argument: religion is like opium, say, or cultural reproduction is like the accumulation of economic capital. Much like the science fiction premises, these don’t work in every context, but they can be very helpful ways to think about the world.

Written by jeffguhin

October 23, 2016 at 12:36 am

what makes the wire (or any other work of art) sociological?

What makes a novel or a movie or a television show sociological?

The quick answer is I don’t know. But I have thoughts, some of them relevant to the the topic at hand, and others wondering how my hair looks.

Every sociologist I talk to about The Wire says it’s one of the most sociological shows they’ve ever seen. What does that mean? In its last season,The Wire throws around the adjective Dickensian in the newsroom it portrays, a wink at the critics who used the word to describe the show’s vast sweep and interest in the urban poor.

So is Dickens sociological by the transitive property? Maybe, but I’m not sure Dickens gets at what makes The Wire so interesting to sociologists, which is that it shows the overwhelming social force of institutions, organizations, and cultural inertia. I’ve always thought of sociology as an explanation for why you’re not as free as you think you are, and you just don’t get that in Dickens, for whom success really does seem to be the result of character. Dickens is obviously aware of the power of the environment, but he just can’t quite commit to the depressing certainty of it (The Wire is nothing if not depressing).

I know, I know: sociology is more than structural constraint. But the problem is that if sociology is the study of the social, then what show or movie or book isn’t sociological? I’m not sure what the answer to that is, but I’d be interested in people’s thoughts. Can a comedy be sociological? I’d say Veep is, and, in fact, I’d say it’s a better politics show than Scandal, The West Wing, or House of Cards precisely because of its sociological awareness of bureaucracy’s absurdity. But again, this gets back to the core importance of institutions, organizations, and inequality to North American sociology. One could do a sociological analysis of Friends pretty easily, but it’s hard to see how the show could itself be called sociological, except to say that sociological things happen in it, which is true for basically any work of art or entertainment about people.

So does anyone have a better idea or what makes a show, movie, play, book, sociological? Or a good example? Please share in the comments.

(By the way, thanks to Garnette Cadogan and Anne Marie Champagne for helping me make sure I’m not wrong about Dickens!)

Written by jeffguhin

May 6, 2016 at 1:29 pm