I teach a sociology 100 class (actually named Sociology 287) and I use a textbook (Steckley 2020) that takes a “non-traditional” approach to teaching sociology. By that I mean the text leans heavily on the use of narratives, which are personal stories and anecdotes, to help introduce and teach about Sociology. In the past, narratives were something actively excluded from scientific activity. The point of science, we were told, was to remain objective and to look at just the facts. It was assumed in all this that scientists (sociologists included) would keep their personal stories out of their scientific activity. They would write their papers in the third person, keep their predilections at bay, and generally keep their own personal “I” as far away from their science as they could possibly get it. This sanitation of the “I” out of science was supposed to keep science as objective as possible.
The proscription that we keep the “I” out of science, that we keep our personal stories to ourselves, seems sensible at first glance. After all, science is about truth and the truth is objective and pure, right. However, there are problems with notions of objectivity and that you can sanitize the “I” out of science.
One problem is that this presumption that one can keep one’s perspective at bay is wrong. You cannot keep your location out of science. Who you are, where you come from, what you believe, the experiences you have had, and the choices you make, all figure into not only what you select to study, but how you study and report it as well (Bochner 2014). I can use my own personal narrative as an example to illustrate this point. The things I have looked at over the years, the things I have researched and studied, have been the things that I am passionate and motivated about, and I suspect this is true for many other scholars as well. When I was a young lad I worked in the service industry to survive. While there, I observed some interesting things about the work we did and this led me to do a case study on the emotional labour of service workers (Sosteric 1996). Later on while doing my PhD, when the Internet was really beginning to boom, I looked at scholarly communication and the emerging World Wide Web. My work with scholarly communication made me a bit of a technology expert so when I began work at Athabasca University, I was heavily involved in the sociology of technology. In all this I wasn’t at all interested in human religion or human spirituality, but then I had a series “mystical experiences” of the kind many people have, and that some scholars (Bucke 2006; Forman 1986; James 1982; Maslow 1962; Stace 1960) have studied, and since then I’ve been interested in them and their potential as well (Sosteric 2014; 2017; 2018). The point here is simple. Pretensions to the contrary, you cannot remove your biography, your “I,” from the scientific process. Who you are, your life experiences, and what you are passionate about often informs what you do and how you go about doing it. Your subjectivity, your experience, lies behind the choices we make and the things that you study.
Another more serious problem with this notion that you can keep the “I” out of science is that sanitizing science of the “I” silences already marginalized voices by excluding certain experiences from consideration. As you will see when you read over the section in your text on the history of sociology, up until quite recently, science in the European and North American academies was mostly conducted by white men from the upper middle classes of society. As such, the system, as you would expect, reflected mostly white male thinking and values. The prescription that people not bring their stories in had the profound effect of maintaining an implicit (and explicit) status quo, either through the direct exclusion of certain life voices, or via the sanitation of these voices as they are filtered through the consciousness of the at-one-time mostly white male intelligentsia doing the observing.
It is easy to understand how this works. Consider the personal narrative of Malidoma Patrice Some (Some 1994) who was stolen by Catholic priests from his home when he was a child and raised in a Catholic seminary. His personal story is interesting for sociologist, psychologists, and others interested in understanding human experience and human spirituality, and the way aspects of Western culture, like religion, are used to colonize and control Indigenous spirituality and Indigenous populations. When we read Patrice’s personal narrative, when we admit his story into consideration despite its “biased” perspective, we learn a lot about colonial mechanisms of oppression, the operation of colonial Christianity, Indigenous spiritual experience, and how Indigenous folks are psychologically and spiritually colonized by European Christian actors and the dogma of the colonial arm of the Christian Church. There is biography and perspective in Some’s story, and he is speaking about his personal life experiences, but this does not invalidate the narrative or diminish the truths he reveals. In fact, quite the opposite is true. His story adds to our understanding of religion, colonization, and European society. If we exclude it because of some misplaced notion of “objectivity,” our understanding is restricted and our colonial mentalities preserved, which is perhaps the point. It is easy to avoid challenge and maintain a white, European, liberal, Capitalistic view when you do not have to listen to other people’s colonial stories. We might even ask the question here, how can sociology ever be truly sociology while it focuses only on the things important to certain social demographics, or excludes the stories of others? How can it claim to have depth and breadth of knowledge when it excludes personal narratives from its field of study, or filters its knowledge through the mindset of the upper middle class academics in the field?
If we admit the need to allow narrative and “I” into the researcher’s field, an immediate question becomes, how should this notion of narrative, social location, and “I” influence your approach and study of sociology? There are a couple of ways this might impact you.
For a start, recognizing the scientific and sociological significance of narrative should help foreground the fact that your voice and perspectives, and the voices and perspectives of others, matter, not only personally, but scientifically and professionally as well. As the textbook I use says, your location gives you a unique perspective, and this perspective is important. Adding this perspective does not take away from science; when done properly, it contributes to it. This might not be obvious to you at the start, but it is easy enough to demonstrate. Read the following short article on residential schools in Canada and watch one or two of the personal narratives provided on YouTube.
- Read 14 first-hand stories underlining how residential schools tried to “get rid” of Indigenous cultures. https://pressprogress.ca/14_first_hand_stories_underlining_how_residential_schools_tried_to_get_rid_of_Indigenous_cultures/
- Watch some personal narratives about the residential school experience at https://legacyofhope.ca/wherearethechildren/stories/
After you completed the activity, pause and consider. What things do you learn about residential schools by listening to the voices of the survivors? Are these things you learned invalid because they were not couched in a version of science sanitized of personal narrative, or filtered through the words and writing of researcher working in a post-secondary institution? Of course not. These narratives enhance our understanding by adding depth and breadth.
Another way narrative might influence your approach to sociology is that it brings front and centre the significance of your social location or standpoint, which is your place in the fabric of the society you live in. Opening up to narrative encourages us to look at our own narratives to see where we’ve come from. Once you do that, you begin to see how your own social location and life experiences impact you. Who you think you are, the way you think about things, and the sorts of things you do, are influenced by your social location and the experience and events that social location exposes you to. Are you a young person? Then you are more likely support legalization of psychedelics (Margolin, Hartman, and Margolin 2020). Are you a white male from Alberta? Then you probably support the oil industry. Are you an Indigenous person? Then racism has been a part of your life experience. Creating spaces and opening the doors to narrative makes the impact of social location easier to talk about, and consequently, easier to see.
Personally, I think that being sensitized to the importance of narrative, and becoming aware of your own social location through reflexive analysis of your own personal narrative is one of the biggest things you can get out of an introductory course in sociology. Indeed, when you think about it, sociology is all about social location. Sociologists try to understand the world and how it works for different groups, and one of the ways they can do that is to encourage and then listen to narrative, particularly when it is informed by sociological concepts and theory. Introducing narrative here is not a weakness, and it is not going to lead to the collapse of science. If anything, it is going to strengthen it.
Keep all this in mind moving forward and remember, your story is important. As you read through your sociology text and course commentary (or lectures, depending on where you are going to school), take the concepts you learn, like intersectionality, standpoint, social class, stereotype threat, and so on, and use them to develop your own personal narrative. Use sociology to understand and explore your own social location. As you develop your own personal narrative, learn to tell your story and, just as important, learn to listen to the narratives of others; if you truly want to understand the world, their stories are important as well.
Bochner, A. P. (2014). Coming to Narrative: A Personal History of Paradigm Change in the Human Sciences. Left Coast Press.
Bucke, R. M. (2006). Cosmic Consciousness: A Study in the Evolution of the Human Mind (Kindle Edition). The Book Tree. https://amzn.to/2IjxuaC
Forman, R. K. C. (1986). Pure consciousness events and mysticism. Sophia, 25(April), 49–58.
James, W. (1982). The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study of Human Nature. Penguin. https://amzn.to/2l4UyR7
Margolin, S. H., Madison, Hartman, S., & Margolin, M. (2020, October 23). First, It Was Weed—Now, Voters Have a Chance for Legal Psychedelics. Rolling Stone. https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-features/lsd-psilocybin-psychedelics-legal-ballot-election-1079488/
Maslow, A. H. (1962). Lessons from the Peak-Experiences. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 2(1), 9–18. https://doi.org/10.1177/002216786200200102
Some, M. P. (1994). Of Water and the Spirit. Penguin Arcana.
Sosteric, M. (1996). Subjectivity and the Labour Process: A Case Study in the Food and Beverage Industry. Work, Employment, and Society, 10(2).
Sosteric, M. (2014). A Sociology of Tarot. Canadian Journal of Sociology, 39(3). https://www.academia.edu/25055505/
Sosteric, M. (2017). The Sociology of Mysticism. ISA ESymposium for Sociology, July.
Sosteric, M. (2018). Mystical experience and global revolution. Athens Journal of Social Sciences, 5(3), 235–255. https://doi.org/10.30958/ajss.5-3-1
Stace, W. T. (1960). The Teachings of the Mystics. Mentor.
Steckley, J. (2020). Elements of Sociology. Oxford University Press.
Mike Sosteric (Dr. S.)