Monday, September 14, 2015

Fact and Nuance 3

Given the prevalence of "nuance" in contemporary sociology, I'm sure some readers of Kieran Healy's excellent essay, "Fuck Nuance", have interpreted its message more radically as "Fuck Sociology" and, of course, if they are themselves sociologists, "Fuck You".

Alice Goffman and her supporters might, for example, read it this way. When her facts in On the Run were drawn into question, first by Steven Lubet and then by Paul Campos, the common defence was that her aim was to capture the nuance of urban poverty, not the mere facts. I have to admit, actually, that this is my interpretation of the defence; I've been able to find a few explicit invocations of "nuance" among her defenders, but not nearly as many as I had expected based on my memory of reading about the controversy. But my impression of her famous TED talk was, precisely, that she was trying to wrap the brute facts that she presented in her "one slide" about incarceration rates in a lot of narrative nuance in order to try to make the problem more "present" to her audience.

The question that Healy raises (though not about Goffman directly) is whether this is good sociology. If it isn't, then what is it? The answer that some of her critics have suggested is that it's just bad journalism or, worse, undeclared fiction. I haven't had as much time to think about it since Friday as I would have liked, so this post isn't going to accomplish everything I wanted to. But I'd like to at least get the distinction on the table that I announced on Friday, namely, the distinction between fact, theory and nuance.

"We need better theory," says Healy, "not less of it." He might also have said we need better theory, not more nuance. But this is not, he stresses, because nuance is a bad thing, just that it's not good for sociology. I agree with him on both points. I think sociology should theorize what can be theorized (though this is less than most sociologist think, I suspect) and leave the nuances to novelists.

That's, of course, what I also think Goffman should have done. Since she has destroyed her field notes, there is, to my mind, very little to distinguish her field work from the "life experience" that novelists draw on to write their stories. These stories are then able to capture what Healy calls the Actually-Existing Nuance of the experience of urban poverty. Some novelists seek out such experiences. Others are merely born into them. And some write not novels but memoirs. If we want a "nuanced" account of the experience of being black and incarcerated, we do better to read Dwayne Betts than Goffman, I think. But fiction has a certain license with the facts, and memoirs are, of course, subjective. So isn't that where Goffman's work makes its contribution: it's "scientific", objective, factual and nuanced?

Well, I think the Goffman controversy shows that the sort of local facts that make up her narrative are not best left to ethnographers. Rather, we do better to trust journalists whose reputations depend on actually getting those facts right. (Remember that Sabrina Rubin Erdely's career was seriously harmed by her UVA reporting for Rolling Stone, whereas Goffman's reputation is largely intact among sociologists.) She does not seem to be as accountable to the facts as journalists would be, which is probably some part of the explanation for how the controversy unfolded in the media.

Anyway, I don't have time today to do this argument (or Healy's essay) justice, but I think theory should be developed with an eye to explaining large, well-established social facts, and journalism should investigate the smaller facts, the particular details. Ideally (in a world where no one made mistakes and no-one lied), a social theory would never deny an actual fact, i.e., one that a journalist has correctly described, nor would a journalist try to pass off facts that make no sense from the perspective of a well-established theory, but, in real life, they will no doubt constantly challenge each other. The relationship between sociological theory and journalistic fact could be one of respectful competition.

So-called "nuance", in the sense that Mailer promotes (in journalism) and Healy dismisses (in sociology) occupies a strange, spectral and, like I say, unaccountable middle ground. That ground, I believe, is literary. It's where the writing happens, and that's why it's also relevant, to a degree, in both sociology and journalism. Mailer was a "literary journalist", and there are plenty of like-wise "literary" sociologists. Part of me thinks that if I follow my impulse to agree too much with Healy, I will also have to dismiss what is perhaps Mailer's most significant contribution to American letters. On the other hand, perhaps my equal and opposite impulse to celebrate Mailer's achievement will give us a way of understanding and, ultimately, approving of Goffman.

As Mailer said to the protester's on the eve of their march on the Pentagon in 1967. "This is an existential situation. We don't know how it will turn out." More on Wednesday.

1 comment:

Presskorn said...

Thank you for directing my attention to Healy's piece! It's clearly a refreshing piece - and I agree with most of it. Without knowing Mailer's ideas very well (that is, not at all! Apart from your auslegung of them), I, however, don't see them at flatly inconsistent. I think the primary target of Healy's piece is the tedious tendency, at conferences, classrooms and journals to always demands more nuance: In the sense of "more qualitative interviews are needed", "this phenomenon is more ambivalent"(with no specification of the ambivalence) and "It's very interesting paper, but I would have liked you to more explicitly address the complexities introduced by Knight (2002)". Healy, I think, is criticizing this degenerated form of public and scholarly decorum. Decorum is always needed and always implies an ethics, but this is, as it were, an overly ethicized decorum having an ever rising amount of complexities and ambivalence as its regulative ideal. From my limited impression of Mailers public appearances, it is my guess that he would have had no patience with it either.