08 April 2014

In the blink of an eye

While our attention is fading even as the story is incomplete, the loss of the Malaysian jetliner and the people on board now has some very clear sociological ramifications for the rest of us.  Similarly, so too do natural disasters, such as the mudslide that buried part of the small community of Oso in my home state of Washington a few weeks ago ("Oso, Washington, 'forever changed' by deadly mudslide, by Jonathan J. Cooper and Lisa Baumann, March 29, 2014, Huffington Post), or the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that is the subject of Sonali Deraniyagala's haunting memoir Wave (here's Teju Cole's review in the New Yorker, "A Better Quality of Agony, March 28, 2013). What am I talking about? It is the sudden disappearance of social roles that is especially relevant now.

Social roles, or social statuses as some refer to them, are the positions we occupy in society.  In my Sociology of Family course I lay mine out very clearly when I tell my students that I am a mother, a wife, a daughter, a sister, a college professor, an immigrant, a woman.  These reveal my family status, my work status, my ethnoracial or immigrant status, and my gender status.  We all have social roles along these lines, some of which are more prominent than others. The ones that stand out as our central ones are called master statuses.  For example, in some societies, one's racial status figures as a master status, even if for the person himself his social roles as father, coworker, husband feel more important than his social identity of black man. Many of us no doubt have had the experience of seeing someone whom we identify so closely with his or her master status that we are tripped up when we see this person in a different social setting or playing a different social role: ever see your grade school teacher at the grocery store shopping for her family?  As children, it was hard for us to imagine a teacher as a mother and wife buying milk and bread for her family.
Femme [woman], 1953, by Le Corbusier
Social roles also evolve throughout our lifetimes; obviously at one point I was not a mother or wife, but a daughter and student.  Some people cycle through many social roles and some are even able to reinvent new ones relatively late in life.  (This weekend's New York Times presented a captivating joint interview of Nancy Pelosi, the current U.S. Senate Minority Leader, and comedienne Julia Louis-Dreyfus.  Pelosi tells us that she started her congressional career at age 46, after 3 of her children had gone off to college.  Now that's inspiring!  See Power Lunch, Times Two, by Philip Galanes, April 4, 2014)  Eventually, our social roles have to be replaced, when we age out of them, or when we die.  New mothers give birth to new sons and daughters, new business majors become marketing managers, new immigrants replace earlier ones. That's the normative pattern, and this all usually happens with some kind of transition, where we have time to adjust to new roles. Illnesses, injuries, graduations, job offers, retirement parties, moving plans all ease us into the new situations where we or others shed old roles and take on new ones.  However, suddenly the unexpected can happen.  Natural disasters or man-made ones may dramatically and irreversibly erase social roles, sometimes almost in the blink of an eye.  Two sons and a husband are swallowed up by a giant ocean wave, a town librarian is caught and buried in a mudslide, a co-worker and someone's daughter inexplicably disappears forever on an airplane.  These people's disappearances alter the social environment in which they were a part.  Not only do they and their social roles disappear suddenly but so do the ones of the people connected to them.   That's what struck me when I read Deraniyagala's recounting of her tsunami experience and its aftermath, where she had to make sense of her altered social role.  She was effectively no longer a mother or a wife even though she had been just a little while before.  The relatives,  friends, and colleagues of the people on the lost airplane or under many feet of mud are now similarly disoriented.  As living members of human society, we expect to have at least a little time to ease in and out of social roles so that we can adjust cognitively, socially and emotionally. While this is surely not much consolation to those suffering the profound losses of their loved ones and of their own social roles, sociologically speaking, we do know that life goes on, because human society depends on it.  Sooner or later, the newly vacant social roles will be filled again.

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