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Attractive drama; ugly sociology

by Phil Bartle, PhD

Training Handout

It is useful sometimes to examine the popular myths of a society or community, to get insight into the verstehen (the "meaning," a la Weber) or paradigm that people have about some situations or events.

In society today, many of our current myths are manufactured in Hollywood or television studios.  One popular theme is found in adventure stories, eg westerns (cowboy stories) and police adventures.  This is the notion that every community has “good guys” and “bad guys” and the drama story line is often centred on the events related to the good guys overcoming the bad guys.  Often the story involves some calculation and analysis to identify the bad guys, then some violence in which the good guys win by being stronger −− might makes right.

Greek myths were about the protagonists and the antagonists.

This absolute categorization is in stark contrast to what we know scientifically: (1) what is good and bad differs from culture to culture, and (2) there is “good” and “bad” in all of us.  We have all broken some norms of our communities, engaging in deviant and/or criminal behaviour.

Prior to deflecting his “War on Terrorism” away from Osama bin Ladin and al Kaeda, to focus on his revenge against Saddam Hussein in Iraq, George W Bush used the term “Forces of Evil” reflecting his simplistic and dangerous view of the world, like Hollywood westerns, being composed of good guys and bad guys. “If you are not for us then you are against us,” another popular but incorrect notion.

In sociology, the study of deviance and crime is about why we have norms, how we come to break them, and society’s response (sanctions) to people conforming to them or breaking them.  Historically our social response has mainly been punishment, or negative sanctions, against those who break the norms.  As social scientists, we know that punishment does not work, and that the desire to punish is driven by unscientific desires for revenge rather than knowing how individuals and societies operate.

While the myth of the good guys and the bad guys serves a purpose of making a simple backdrop to adventure drama, and allows for a story to develop in a short period of time, important in today’s entertainment industry, it does a disservice to our understanding of society, understanding of deviance and crime, and the operations of our whole justice programme, including our laws, courts, law enforcement, sentences, jails, prisons and penitentiaries.

We as professionals in the social sciences, including both researchers and those who are practitioners in the applied or practical applications of social sciences, need a good understanding of these things, and recognition of the role of the myth of the good guys versus the bad guys as an important element of that understanding.

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Last update: 2012.10.28

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