After I wrote piece on generational archetypes and their characteristics for a newspaper a few years ago I was surprised by the number of animated reactions I received in the online comment section. People don’t like to be pigeonholed, even under my pretense of doing social science trend research. It turns out that when social scientists and market researchers use demographic, economic and cultural data to glean insight into contemporary trends they are stepping on psychological minefields. Readers often feel stigmatized by the findings and believe this way of classifying people is just an intellectualized form of bigotry.
I understand this hesitation, but I feel strongly that the goal of a social scientist is not to compartmentalize certain types of people to solidify unfounded myths, but quite the opposite. When social scientists make generalizations it’s always – or should always be – based on value neutrality and scientific observations. Moreover the goal is not to neglect human agency and individual differences, but to say something about the general trends.
The problem is that many people who make their living analyzing social data often live socially isolated middle-class lives and cocoon themselves in ivory towers and corporate buildings. I think that in order to learn enough about people and generations in their various environments, it behooves you to move out of your khaki-clad business world and hang out with people “on the other side” sometimes.
Bob Wendover from Center for Generational Studies has me worried that this is still not a very common practice among influential people in the business world. Apparently not even among many of those who claim to be experts on people and their subgroups. I come to this conclusion after reading his July blogpost titled “Don’t be pejorative”. (Huh, do companies really pay for advice like that?)
So, Mr. Wendover informs us that he has been doing generational research for 20 years and conducted hundreds seminars and admits to having been accused of being pejorative in his comments about generations. Only now is he coming to the realization that things ain’t always what they seem. Good for him! I just wonder what took him so long.
Here’s the good part: “We all bring our biases to work. When we observe a particular behavior that fits our paradigm, we feel validated or reinforced in our perceptions. Several months ago, I entered a convenience store to purchase some milk. The young man behind the counter was dressed in a goth-type tee-shirt, covered with tattoos and wore eyeliner and a mohawk. But when I approached the register, he treated me with a friendly professionalism I have not witnessed in many of his “clean cut” peers. “
In case you wonder: No, people who dabble in the social sciences do not “all bring their biases to work”! If you really want to learn what make people tick and use your position to teach others about it, social biases are strictly verboten. The job is to debunk myths, not to perpetuate them. Carrying biases into our research does nothing more than undermining our credibility. Do we make generalizations? You bet! Do these generalizations sometimes become stereotypes? Sometimes. You often end up with that when you look at patterns emerging from methodologically sound studies. The problem is when your biases materialize from sheer ignorance and have no basis in factual observations. Or from misreading statistics. Or from lack of deep insight that could have been offset by some ethnographic efforts and basic critical thinking. This is why it is such a no-no for social scientists to be unaware of prejudices and let them color their research – especially for 20 years! As in this case.
What did Mr Wendover expect in the convenience store? That the store clerk who represented “alternative culture” would somehow not do his job well? Sacrifice a goat in front of him? Or pick his nose, maybe? Jeez…
And as for attributing subcultures to their generations, when did “goth-type tee-shirt, covered with tattoos and wore eyeliner and a Mohawk” represent “the younger generations”? Let’s say about 20 years ago. At least! That’s because being a nearly middle-aged mother of three I now reminisce over my youthful brush in with Goth fads and similar “alternative cultures”. I get outright embarrassed when I read that people who share my interest in generations and foresight get ‘surprised’ whenever they discover that people with mohawks and tattoos turn out to be decent human beings. It’s sort of like people who say: “She’s black/gay/(fill in the blanks), but she’s pretty nice.” Yes, I know those are biological distinctions and lifestyle choices are not, but you get the point.
Another FYI, the writer did not see a “goth-type tee-shirt”. He didn’t because there ain’t such a thing. T-shirts are – and were – for Goth people what orthopedic shoes are for fashionistas – something you’d prefer not to be caught dead in, and if you have to wear it, it’s for comfort only and not part of your fashion statement. Goth attire are usually cape-like neo-romanic garments in silky materials or black crushed velvet and look like they have been purchased from a vintage boutique in Soho, not from Target’s t-shirt shelves.
While on the subject I would feel very sorry for the software, marketing or technology firm that follows the ill-placed advice of screening their potential employees for body adornment. In the creative economy such policy could be outright suicidal. Richard Florida wrote extensively about this in his 2004 book “The Rise of the Creative Class”.
Still think subcultures that were popularized with Generation X are still expressions of deviant youth cultures? Wake up to 2012 already!
Images: Rubin’s vase; Flickr: soulstealer.co.uk
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