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Economics, Social Science, and the Continuing Soap Opera
by Luke Rondinaro
24 July 2002 02:09 UTC
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Dear WSN,

See how you like this mini-essay.  (Mike Alexander’s most recent reply + an email response I received back from David Christian on our ongoing discussions about the empirical basis of Science/Social Science got me thinking, both about how we as social scientists persuade our audiences and do our analyses of human social experience in the contemporary here and now.)  I hope the essay proves useful and raises some good insights on the issues I address.  


Economics, Social Science, and the Continuing “Soap Opera”

Bill was reading the newspaper; Esther was glued to the television.  “Did you hear that?” she called out of the room to the kitchen.  “The Fed raised interest rates again.  They just said so on CNBC.”  “That’s great!”, Bill, her husband replied back sarcastically, intermittently munching on a biscuit.  “How much more of this can the economy take?!?,” he shrieked, his low baritone voice reaching up to a tenor and then maxing out to the tinny sound of small, old tape recorder. “It says here in the Journal that the economy is in shambles.  It can’t take much more of these hikes.”  Musing back to last evening, he continued.  “Peter Jenning’s said” (on last night’s news) “that corporate scandals are to blame.  People just are not confident about the Market anymore; some are selling their stocks off like mad.  Others don’t know what to do.”  “I’m turning over to Bloomberg”, Esther shouted in just as Bill started loudly grumbling about the performance of his own stock holdings.  “What’s this?” he fumed.  AOL is going down again!”  

This passage, a fictional account of a husband and wife keeping track of their investments, Market events, and the state of the economy by watching TV and reading papers like the Wall Street Journal and Investors Business Daily, is an illustration.  The purpose of the passage is to introduce this piece and its major ideas.  The main argument of my short essay here is to show (describe really) just how much of our understanding of economics and organizational behavior is tied up with its presentation in the media, how much akin to a soap opera it truly is, and how much the techniques of marketing and slick advertising are used to catch our attention and keep us hooked.

First take a look at all the major media outlets for monitoring what’s going on with the Stock Market and the American economy as a whole.  There’s the TV, there’s radio reports, there’s newspapers and magazines, and there’s the Internet.

Second, if you would, go into a little deeper in the analysis and see how many people receive this information daily.  (It’s best with the Internet because you can check how many times a particular site or web page has been visited); of these visitors, how many are hooked on this news/info. site, and, in turn, how many are hooked on the kind information coming out of it …

This isn’t to say such sites aren’t important or that their products/services aren’t important.  To the personal investor, practical market analyst, news reporter, or otherwise follower of Market change, these sites are most certainly important in both a pragmatic, utilitarian way (and in the more objective sense of using them to come to a knowledge of world-systemic economic and communicative networks).

Yet, what I (still) maintain is not important is the SOAP OPERA coverage of such analysis.

The Stock Market/Economic Soap Opera:

Will Alan Greenspan raise rates or won’t he?  Will the Market respond or won’t it?  Will investors buy or sell?  What will the foreign response be?

What will the corporations do?  What will their corporate politics be?  Will there be any more scandals like Enron and Adelphia and what will their repercussions be on the rest of society as people buy and consume and invest?

These are legitimate questions.  But what’s not legitimate is the behaviorist, marketed, marketable dimension of the issue as it’s dealt with in the news.  What isn’t legitimate, I maintain, is the consumed, marketed, commercialized aspect of such coverage and analysis by the media, which is then eaten up haphazardly and semi-consciously, if not unconsciously, by the public.  Just as people are subliminally and mimetically sold on buying that BK Whopper whether or not it’s really good for them and/or really enjoyable to them, so too are they sold on this or that version of the news and by the idea that they must keep up with it or else they’re not really with it in our world.  They have been conditioned to buy into the slick advertising on the news and through entertainment; they’ve been conditioned to buy into that behavioristic trigger which works on their subconscious psyches and on their more basic emotions, to either buy some particular product or in the case of the news/ entertainment examples I’ve been discussing to stay tuned.

Now while people can buy whatever they want or watch/read whatever they like, there’s an ethical responsibility the society has to its people not to treat them like guinea pigs or use/abuse them as if they were pack animals.  (Even thinking about people, and their large group activities, in terms of a similarity to pack animals defeats the purpose of their not being such)  The Soap Opera model of human events thinks of people and treats people as if they were pack animals.  As long as people are just mass consumers meant soley either to ‘buy something’ or’ buy into something’, with advertisers and marketers pulling strings, their true worth as people will never be properly understood and the full-depth of their socio-behavioral activities will never be completely or rightly analyzed to the best possible social scientific extent.

Peoples’ activities are superficialized to only the terms an advertiser or marketing agent would understand and the analysis or coverage of such activities is dumbed-down to that of a gossip columnist or a soap opera aficionado.  Would we be happy if the hosts of Entertainment Tonight or local TV sports reporters gave us the Nightly News?  It doesn’t seem so.  So, why are economics, business, and finance treated as if they were nothing more than a glitzy daytime soap opera?  … It seems to me there’s more to both human activity/people’s economic activities than just this brand of glitzy fare we find in the soaps, on ET, and in the commercials.  It seems coverage/analysis of such activity should reflect this additional element to human experience.  Shouldn’t it? …

Analysis and Presentation - The Social Science Connection:

If human economic activity is no more than a large-scale “casino” (ReOrient 1998, p. 133) on the global, regional, and local levels, if human events are no more than an ever-continuing soap opera, and their coverage is no more than that which is given on Access Hollywood, then we have no legitimate long sustaining basis from which to base scholarly analyses.  Our social science becomes nothing more than the academic-analytic equivalent of pop-psychology; that’s to say it becomes pop-social science or pop-social studies.

Even if we wish to hold to a more pragmatic, utilitarian model of social science, we’d still be faced with a dilemma by accepting this model of the ever-continuing soap opera of human experience.  For what does the soap opera and the finite game of Macro-economic (Casino) 101 actually do for people to better their life’s chances.  Odds are, they’ll do no better here gambling on Wall Street than they’d do gambling at Las Vegas.  But as soon as they get beyond the gambling stage in their investments, they’ll do themselves far better individually and socially.  The only ones who benefit from Casino 101 and from the soap opera of human events are the capitalist elites and political/corporate entertainment/media-marketing avant-garde who employ glitzy advertising in order to maximize their profits and leech off peoples’ needs for good and services as well as their intellectual-emotional need to believe things, to buy into things, and be convinced.  People do like their “soma” and they’ve been largely conditioned to like their soma thinking it gives them the material things and the kinds of ideas they want to accept in life.  But “soma” is still just “soma.” Religion may indeed be the “opiad of the masses”; however in our day and age it seems, ever more and more, that our material and mental brands of opium/soma have become “the religion of the masses.”

Our analysis of social events within WST and the social sciences in general must go beyond coverage of the soap opera, and for the most part I think it does.  For we must readily recognize that it does and readily make the distinction between what the news and corporate media say is going on at Microsoft and what we can tell through our primary source researches is actually going on at the company.  In other words, to go back to my essay Social Science and the Problem of Is/Ought, we must distinguish between the dynamics of the “underlying substrate” and the surface mechanics of the “sociological overlay.”   

The essay itself was more or less mostly a theoretical think piece designed to frame an intellectual issue and identify a set of principles to be later analyzed according to empirical evidence, after the epistemological parameters of the topic were more solidly and reasonably shaped.  Now that this has been done, my task now is to revisit the essay in terms of more factually-based case studies and some of the various applied logics (practical issues) that are available to us as social scientists.  My thought on research design is this; I need to find out substantially whether there’s a discernible gap between what an organization sees itself as being (via its bylaws and organizational chart), what the news media (print, broadcast, and online) see it as being, and what actually takes place within the organization over time according to its rank and file employees.  I’m hypothesizing that generational change and continuity is the key to a difference between what occurs via the sociological overlay and what occurs in the underlying substrate.  The underlying substrate should be relatively more stable in its rate & level of change than is the sociological overlay.  The substrate should, if I’m correct, maintain its intrinsic structure, orientation, and operations despite media influence; and if an element of an organization does not conform to this pattern, then its not part of the underlying substrate [or else the distinction between SO and US is unfounded, & there is no real difference between surface structures covered (& hence shaped) by the media and deep structures/activities that really take place between company bosses and their workers.  {In this regard, my question to the List would be – how might I pursue my empirical investigation of the topic from this point forward in my research?  Any ideas?}

Clearly, it seems to me, our analysis of questions like this one needs to be centered on deep-structured relationships within and among organizations or else we run the risk of being superficial in our research and we end up feeding the soap opera mentality present today within so much publicized social science work, and in terms of economic, financial, and business analysis of the variety we get on CNBC and in the Wall Street Journal.  But tell me, does anybody else on WSN see real world merit to the anthropological difference between notions of  “deep” and “surface structuring?”

My last point here centers on the matter of presentation; it deals with practical persuasion and what we do as social scientists to convince others of the value in our own research and arguments.  Here’s my driving question:  should there be any significant difference between the marketing of an advertising agency and the kind of persuasion techniques we employ as social scientists both to our colleagues and our students.  I myself would think there should be a difference, but this belief is largely tied-into my own conviction that the distinction between deep structuring and surface structuring makes a good deal of sense.  After all, we’re not making a sales pitch; but relaying our research findings and our ideas onto our audience – which is first our students and colleagues and then secondly the public.  We’re not really selling some thing or some marketed concept, but are passing on our understanding of the way things really are (i.e., the truth) and the facts which go along with it.  So how is what we do as social scientists and academics really similar to what Gateway does when it attempts to sell us on buying a new computer? 


So what do you all think?  I look forward to your insights.


Luke R.

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