Public Sociology
Sociology Ruins “Normal”
Sociology Ruins “Normal”

Sociology Ruins “Normal”

We’re hearing a lot about the return to “normal” after the COVID-19 pandemic, but what is “normal”? And should we return to “normal” when that’s what got us in trouble in the first place? This episode is a deep dive into the idea of normality and the origins of sociology, itself — with only a little bit of (censored) swearing thrown in. I also talk with Joseph Scimecca, professor of sociology at George Mason University, about how sociology has changed over time as normality has shifted. All of that in less than 18 minutes!


[00:00:02.630] – Matt

One thing we’ve been hearing repeatedly during the Covid 19 pandemic is how soon can society return to normal? But what is normal? Normality is a concept that is widely acknowledged but poorly defined. Is it the the opposite of abnormal? Are normal traits or activity somehow more natural than those not deemed normal? And if so, who’s defining what is normal? Does normality change over time? And here’s the million dollar question: why do we want things to go back to normal when normal is what got us into trouble in the first place?

[00:00:33.770] – Matt

It’s a lot to unpack in a podcast, but I’m going to try. I’m Matt Sedlar, and today sociology is going to ruin normal for you.

[00:00:51.450] – Matt

The sociological concept of normality has its roots in the origins of the discipline itself.

[00:00:56.730] – Matt

The story starts with Auguste Comte, a French philosopher who was educated during the Enlightenment, sort of the 18th century equivalent of a TED conference that changed the way Western philosophy looked at the world. One outcome of the Enlightenment was the development of the scientific method, and Comte sought to apply the same principles to the study of social order and change. He called this social physics. We call it sociology.

[00:01:20.610] – Matt

Fun fact: Comte actually believed sociology would be a religion that observed a 13-month calendar with each month named after great thinkers, artists, authors, philosophers, but basically all dudes. Not surprisingly Comte’s religion of humanity did not catch on; although chapels dedicated to the religion were built in France and Brazil. So what does this all have to do with normality? The empirical study of society, known as Positivism, was modeled after medical pathology, the science that looks at the cause and effect of diseases. Society was seen as similar to the human body. Anything unusual could throw everything out of whack.

[00:01:58.890] – Matt

This is where the idea of social norms come in. Norms are the rules and expectations in society that prevent us from doing something unusual or unexpected, or else we face consequences in the form of sanctions. Pretty much every sketch on Tim Robinson’s hilarious show “I think you should leave” plays on this notion of what happens when we break these norms. In one sketch, a late night ghost tour with “no rules” still has some unspoken rules in terms of adult language.

[00:02:26.310] – Ghost Tour Guide

It’s just after 10:00 p.m.. This is the adult tour, which means you can drink if you want, and we can say whatever the hell we want.

[00:02:33.340] – Tourist

*expletive removed*

[00:02:36.610] – Ghost Tour Guide


[00:02:40.550] – Tourist

*expletive removed* like *expletive removed*. You can say that because you say we can say whatever the hell we want.

[00:02:44.570] – Ghost Tour Guide


[00:02:45.410] – Tourist

 Or horse *expletive removed*.

[00:02:47.750] – Ghost Tour Guide

Yeah, I guess there are no rules about swearing.

[00:02:50.390] – Tourist


[00:02:50.810] – Ghost Tour Guide

But let’s do try and keep the comments and questions related to the ghost tour. Okay?

[00:02:54.770] – Matt

At the end of the sketch, the man who keeps breaking the unspoken rules about language is tossed out of the tour group to the cheers of the other attendees. He sadly walks back to a car where his mom is waiting, and she asks if he made any new friends. So how are we supposed to follow unspoken rules set by social norms if they’re unspoken? Different theories of socialization posit this occurs through interactions with family, peer groups, basically other people. Through trial and error, children and adults, we discover what is generally accepted in society and what isn’t. So saying *expletive removed*, *expletive removed* and especially horse *expletive removed* around strangers is not cool.

[00:03:32.030] – Matt

Back to Comte, he believed these norms were the immune system for society, fighting off anything that was out of place. This continued and gained influence under the work of other sociologists, including Emile Durkheim, who is considered one of the founders of the discipline. In fact, this idea of society being an organism with interrelated parts needs and functions is part of a framework for thinking that was influential in sociology up until around the 60s and 70s. It’s called structural functionalism. Structural functionalists theorize that by using the process of socialization and education, basically positive and negative reinforcement, we can attain self control and shun deviant behavior. This is called social control theory. Sociologist Kai Erickson in his book The Wayward Puritans uses the example of the Salem witch trials in which women who exercised a degree of influence over others were punished under the guise of being witches.

[00:04:27.470] – Matt

The reaction from those in power was swift, and many women were killed. According to Erickson, a community no matter the size, is boundary maintaining meaning “Each has a specific territory in the world as a whole, not only in the sense that it occupies a defined region of geographical space but also in the sense that it takes over a particular niche in what might be called cultural space and develops its own ethos or way within that compass.” Any activities outside the boundaries of a group become inappropriate or immoral. But boundaries are not fixed.

[00:05:01.670] – Matt

This goes back to a question I posed in the intro. Does normality change over time? Of course it does. Take Mad Men, a show set in the world of an advertising firm in the 60s and 70s. In this clip, two women are pitching an idea to a group of men in the firm, and the response they get is pretty cringe worthy.

[00:05:20.570] – Woman

We were hoping that McCann Erickson could provide, at the minimum, an introduction to your department store clients, so we can assess their desire for a store brand.

[00:05:30.350] – Man 1

I know they’d be happy to meet you.

[00:05:32.030] – Man 2

Especially Dan Higgins. He loves a red heads.

[00:05:34.790] – Matt

The clip only gets worse from there. This is not to suggest that something like that does not happen in 2021, but at least today this type of behavior is considered wrong and these men would be fired. Maybe. So a quick recap: Early sociologists believe society was like the human body and conformity was the answer for removing what was considered deviant or abnormal behavior and keeping everything running smoothly. Hopefully you can see why structural functionalism lost a lot of influence over the course of the 60s and 70s.

[00:06:06.830] – Matt

It was the era of the civil rights movement, protests against Vietnam, the rise of counterculture. Structural functionalists had no *expletive removed* idea what was going. Enter the conflict theorists. *dramatic music plays and suddenly stops*

[00:06:36.330] – Matt

Sorry. That was a little overly dramatic. Conflict theory basically says society is not functioning like a well-oiled machine. We’re competing for resources – whether social, political or material – and our social structures reflect that by producing inequalities. And social norms? Those aren’t produced for the benefit of society as a whole. They’re produced to benefit … Well, those who would benefit most from them. This is the case with unspoken rules as well as laws, which are just codified rules. Here’s one example, after the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in the United States, southern states passed vagrancy laws that essentially said, you couldn’t wander around without a job. Let’s see who was looking for work after slavery was abolished? By the way, if you were arrested under these laws, you’d be sent to prison and forced to work in the fields, which was slavery. The vagrancy laws reestablished slavery.

[00:07:27.570] – Matt

This is the type of work conflict theorists focus on. For classical conflict theorists like Marx and Weber, as well as more modern conflict theorists like C. Wright Mills, the question was how are norms creating inequalities that in turn produce differences in society and imbalances of power within institutions?

[00:07:44.850] – Matt

To explore this topic further, I spoke with Joseph Scimecca, professor of sociology at George Mason University.

[00:07:51.090] – Matt

What is it about structural functionalism that made social movements in the 60s and 70s so hard to understand when social movements had existed before, like the women’s suffrage movement?

[00:08:00.870] – Joseph Scimecca

Yeah. I think what happened to functionalism was the 1960s. Literally every major institutional order was challenged. Functionalism really could not explain rapid social change. And I think that that was the main reason, or one of the main reasons, particularly young sociologists rebelled against it. We were in the market for a solution, and the world around was changing and functionalism was talking about roles and everything served a function. And really around us was dysfunction.

[00:08:35.250] – Matt

Is it more that the women’s suffrage movement, for example, took place over the span of 100 years, whereas a lot of what was happening in the 60s and 70s was happening in a very compact timeline?

[00:08:48.030] – Joseph Scimecca

Yeah. That’s what I would think. That would be my interpretation of that. It just happened so quickly and things were just changing, particularly among youth. It was a youth movement around the country, around the world, actually, not only just Berkeley and so on, but in Germany and France and so on. Young people in their 20s were really responding to it. And again, also in America, the Vietnam War, radicalized a lot of young, particularly in the social sciences. I remember people starting to have teach ins and walking out at conventions and so on sociological conventions in the 60s because of it having to do with the Vietnam War, people were just radicalized by it. And Functionalism is basically conservative, and functionalism started really in the late 30s and so on, right during the Depression or right at the tail end of the Depression.

[00:09:51.870] – Joseph Scimecca

And so it made for an emphasis on order. And then all of a sudden, the order was breaking down, and it was very difficult to explain breakdown of order from a functionalist perspective. That sort of opens up the gates to, I think, the conflict theorists.

[00:10:08.190] – Matt

So that’s a great segueway into conflict theory. Sociologist C. Wright Mills wrote about the traps of our everyday lives, our private troubles, and how they should be treated as public issues. Normality is often situated as a desire for patterns that are free of these traps. I just want to get up, go to work, come home, have dinner and go to bed. But I don’t want to sit in traffic. I don’t want to lose electricity so I can’t turn on the stove. And I really don’t want to stay up all night worrying about if the world’s ending.

[00:10:35.550] – Matt

How do conflict theorists and structural functionalists interpret this differently?

[00:10:39.330] – Joseph Scimecca

What happened was that people now began to look for, you know, what was causing all this unrest? I was in graduate school. It seemed like everything was going wrong within the society. Professors were talking about points of roles, and Mills was a pariah at the time because he was dealing with … he was challenging not only sociology, but he was challenging looking at American society from a critical perspective. And functionalism is simply not a very critical viewpoint.

[00:11:13.950] – Matt

It really seems like right now with the pandemic, climate change, the Trump presidency, black lives matter, we’re in a very similar state of constant upheaval.

[00:11:26.610] – Joseph Scimecca

Right. No, I think looking at it from, maybe it’s cyclical, but looking at it from what happened in the 60s and the late 60s now it’s comparable. You may get a whole different view. I’m really optimistic about people in their 20s and 30s now trying to really do something. Maybe it took something like a pandemic to shake up, quote, normalcy, unquote. One of the things that the pandemic does is it gives you the opportunity, if you want to take it, because you have nothing else to do but to really think of what is going on.

[00:12:07.050] – Joseph Scimecca

You want to live out your lives the way you do or not. Something we’ll have to wait and see. If you look at it, it’s a depressing time. But it’s also an exciting time because of the changes that going are be made, which will have to be made. We’re going to have to adapt to a number of things.

[00:12:27.090] – Matt

Your research focuses on religion, and I’m wondering how that fits in with the discussion on not only social change but also normalcy.

[00:12:37.230] – Joseph Scimecca

Religious belief offers something that the other institutions don’t. Basically, it provides a meaning. And I think that one of the things about the pandemic is that people began to question the meaning of everything. It was hard being cooped up for 18 months for some people, and so you begin to look at things. And so again, I go back to the civil rights movement, for instance, which again comes out of … It wouldn’t have happened without the — not the Church, not the established Church — but individual clergy. And so on.

[00:13:15.750] – Joseph Scimecca

When you have a different base of legitimacy, it seems to me … Let me backtrack a little bit. I think that there are dominant institutional orders in any society. Mills talked about the political and the economic and they are. But there are also subordinate institutions, which are there to legitimize what’s going on in the society. And I think religion is needed to legitimize what’s going on in society. And when it doesn’t, that’s when you begin to get change. I mean, for years in Latin America, the Catholic Church simply supported the oppression.

[00:13:53.250] – Joseph Scimecca

It was only when it began to change its views. And so on. And you had theology of liberation and literally radical priests who did a lot to change. And I think we can have that. I would like to see that in the United States. It’s beyond me how, quote, evangelicals can support Trump. He’s just probably as far from having anything in common with practicing Christians than any other person who’s been President or, if not, is close to it. But there is a beginning of movement among young evangelicals who are now looking at climate.

[00:14:35.970] – Joseph Scimecca

There’s a whole movement — evangelical movement — towards climate change to protect the Earth and take seriously the notion of stewardship of the Earth. And so things like that. I would like to be a naive optimist, but I am optimistic. I think that the — and again, I know people are moving away from organized religion — but I don’t know if they’re really moving away from being spiritual and having religious beliefs. I think the jury is still out on that. And so again, I think it’s important that religious institutions have to support the status quo or there’s problems.

[00:15:15.570] – Joseph Scimecca

And I think that the religious institutions are now moving a bit towards not supporting it. And I think that that’s where social movements will come out of it. But that’s just my opinion.

[00:15:38.710] – Matt

Like I said at the top of the podcast, it’s a lot to unpack, and there are a lot of concepts I didn’t even cover. I know what you’re thinking. What does this have to do with what I consider my normal day-to-day life? So here’s one example. Prior to the pandemic social norms in the United States did not include wearing masks when we’re sick. This is based on our collective rationality that personal choice is more important than social responsibility. As neoliberal economist Milton Friedman said, quote, Each man can vote as it were for the color of tie he wants and get it. He does not have to see what color the majority wants. And then if he is in the minority, submit, end quote. Translation: The government shouldn’t tell you what color tie to wear. In that highly specific example, yes, Milton Freeman, we can all agree that’s annoying. But what lies at the heart of this neoliberal rationality is the idea of competition between individuals, not cooperation. We’re not wearing masks because the government told us to. We’re wearing masks because there’s a highly infectious disease going around and we don’t want people to get *expletive removed* sick.

[00:16:39.790] – Matt

Sorry, that’s the last one. Promise. Sociologist Barbara Misztal wrote in her book Multiple Normalities, quote, People desire normality because it helps them to reduce the complexity of their lives, because they need patterns while they search for acceptable solutions to their problems and because they aspire to a return of normality, especially after a crisis or one faced with trauma, end quote. The last 18 months have been filled with crisis and trauma. This may explain why people are so ready to abandon the precautions of the pandemic. People want patterns that feel familiar, but those patterns were generated by systems that aren’t always in our best interest or the interest of others.

[00:17:18.190] – Matt

We know normality changes over time and, per Misztal, it is influenced by dominant discourses and ideas of our period. Maybe like Dr. Scimecca, I’m optimistic. After everything we’ve learned during the pandemic, I think we can create a normal that incorporates empathy and compassion. I’d like to thank my guest, Joseph Scimecca, for taking time to talk about classical sociology. This podcast was produced, mixed and scored by me, Matt Sedlar. You can find me on Twitter at @MattSedlar or message the podcast at @SociologyRuins. Next month, sociology will ruin something else for you. Hang in there, everyone.