Telling stories to help understand what sociology is about

By Claudia Vallve

In the ninth part of our special section on Sociology and Fiction, Claudia Vallve considers the power of stories for making Sociology accessible.

I love story telling. I love hiking too. This is a story about hiking and, also, about telling stories about society.

As I said, I love hiking. And I’m fortunate to live in a region full of mountains. From Barcelona, where I work and live, I can get to wonderful mountains within a couple of hours ride. I’m a member of a hiking society. We usually go hiking on weekends. We walk, talk and enjoy climbing up and down the mountains.

One of the members of this hiking society is a lecturer at the Barcelona University Department of Genetics and co-director of a scientific dissemination collection, launched by the university as a means of bringing society closer to the world of science. One day, as we walked and talked, I told him that it was a pity that there were not many scientific dissemination books in humanities. He has written a lot of books to help people understand things as why we agewhat transgenics are for and what’s the use of sex. However there are not many books of this kind on sociological issues. Somehow, “great” scientists see it as something easy, simple, and not valuable. However, writing a book that can be understood by anyone is a really difficult task. And I can prove it. My impulsive reaction to my friend’s offer was to write a book to explain how sociology helps us to understand society. And I soon realized the complexity of the challenge I had embraced.

I wanted to explain sociological concepts such as social class, gender differences, primary and secondary socialization, alienation, anomie, or liquid society in an understandable way. I also wanted to explain what sociology is, how sociologists work and present the different methods we use to do our research work. The idea was that anyone with a high school degree could read the book without difficulty. Being a book for dissemination, the approach should be entertaining and easy to read.

After a few days looking at the white paper, and feeling in front of a cliff, I found the solution: stories. I spoke of the idea with my friend, and he proposed that I write short stories to help me introduce the sociological concepts I wanted to present. It was a great idea.

For instance, to explain Bauman’s concept of liquid society I used this little story:

James is having a coffee in front of the courts. He has just signed the divorce from his third wife.

He looks at his glass, while stirring the coffee, and remembers his first marriage: the bride, beautiful, dressed in white and with a flower bouquet in her hands; he, in a tight black tuxedo. They swore they would be together for ever, for good and bad things… and after a couple of years they had split. The other two marriages were civil ones, but they also swore eternal love. And none of them lasted for long.

I must be doing something wrong – thinks James – since I’m not able to hold a relationship over five years. But he quickly changes his mind: most of his friends are separated, and the ones who haven’t would be better off living alone.

But it’s not only marriage that doesn’t work. Work does not last long either. And he doesn’t have enough fingers to count all the flats he has lived in. However, nowadays changing flat is easy. You don’t even have to move: a visit to Ikea and you have a brand new home in no time.

Thinking all this he pays his coffee and heads to his ex-wife’s home. To finish things off, it’s his turn to take care of his children this afternoon. He is not really in the mood for it. So he decides they will eat at McDonalds, which is easy and quick. And after this, he’ll take the children to the Apple Store. To cheer up, he will buy the new iPad Air 2. His tablet is really old and it’s too slow, so he needs a new one. Besides, kids love technology stores. Maybe he also buys a new smartphone for his son, who is eleven and insists on getting a new one because the old one is “crap”.

Through the story of James, I introduce the concept of liquid society. Thinking about Jame’s life, we can easily understand what Bauman says about post-modern life being a succession of new beginnings, in which we are not worried about starting from scratch, but on closing things as soon as we can and getting rid of what we don’t need anymore. 

To James everything is superfluous and everything changes: wives, work, furniture, home, objects. Everything in his life is temporary. But it’s not only work, or things, or love that is liquid. Also social relationships have become liquid. And James is also a good example for this. He does not even know his neighbors, but has more than 400 friends on Facebook.  

And so on. Accompanying James we enter into the contradictions of post-modern life. We get a glimpse of the fragile position in which we have placed ourselves. Of consumerism and all the environmental problems associated with the exponential growth of consumption. And we will see how the only way out of this dead end is education, awareness and involvment in decision making.

The book is inhabited by a handful of characters that help us understand better how society and social relations work. A couple of girls born the same day in the bosom of an upper class and a lower class family, a Sociology professor that has to explain to his friends what his work is about, an old working woman who is thrilled about being interviewed by a young sociologist or a traditional family celebrating Christmas, with women at the kitchen while man speak about business, are some of the characters I have created to help me explain what sociology is, how it works and how it can help us to better understand our complex world.

The experience writing the book has been an enriching one. Reflecting on the stories has been helpful in enabling me to structure the chapters and to introduce complex concepts in a simple way. Now the book is waiting to be published. I hope it helps people from outside our little world to understand us better. 

Originally posted 9th April 2016

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