A definition is no proof.
--William Pinkney, American diplomat (1764-1822)

Like moths to lights, humans are attracted to organizing principles that give order, predictability, and meaning to life's random events. Through schemas, models, metaphors and myths, humans have sought to make sense of their world. People view their worlds in terms of certain models and "see" what they expect to see. Scientific theory is another of these ways by which experiences are organized and given coherence. In the abstract, science is nothing more than the exercise of developed perception. Its metaphors and theories direct our attention to particular phenomena and inform us about those things we are to ignore. The first step of any science when approaching and conceptualizing any unknown phenomenon is to think about it in terms of known metaphors. To describe the novel, one is forced to use known terms.

Consider the concept of society. What is it? How is it possible? How do the activities of thousands or millions of people come to be coordinated into some whole?

At the turn of the century in the wake of Darwin's ideas, some social theorists conceptualized societies to be various organisms competing for survival on the inhabitable portions of earth. Differing in their adaptability to changing "environments" (meaning not only volcanic eruptions, plagues and droughts but also new technological innovations, contacts with new cultures, and new religious or political ideologies), these social organisms are governed by the same survival-of-the-fittest laws as affect prairie dogs and Andean condors.

Applying this organic metaphor to the internal workings of a given society can give us some fairly nauseating insights. As a pig passes through a python so baby-boomers pass through American society, stretching the system (i.e., larger classrooms when school-aged, housing shortages when coming of age, fat layers of middle-management when middle-aged, etc.). As tissue grows around blood supplies so social organization grows around the flow of social resources, whether they be commerce, information, or knowledge. And with evolution--in other words, with the adaptations accruing in the struggles for survival--these parts and processes become increasingly complex, with greater differentiation and specialization. Hence, these theorists thought, where challenges for change are the greatest (i.e., those in the tropics didn't have to invent snowblowers and thermal underwear) you will find simple tribes evolving into complex nation-states. The "body politic" comes to have an elaborate communications system as its central nervous system, a political system for a brain (there will admittedly be controversy here), a vast military system for claws and fangs, and so forth. With the model in place, one can go on to perhaps liken crime to cancer (where portions of the social body feeds upon itself) or to parasitism (the animal kingdom is filled with non-productive thieves) and liken the growing bureaucracies as hardening of the arteries, slowing down decision-makings and abilities to respond to external threats.

Another metaphor by which to conceptualize society is to think of it as a series of theatrical dramas replete with their own stages and backstages, props, and costumes. In each, individuals assume the appropriate roles and interact with each other largely on the basis of drama-specific scripts. We may argue, for instance, that educational systems are feudal arrangements

Shifting from society to the individual, from macro to micro, what metaphors come to mind when thinking about people's feelings, thoughts and, most importantly, their behaviors? This choice of metaphor, in fact, remains the subject of considerable debate in social psychology. Can students' studying be likened to Pavlov's drooling dogs, with the first successful completion of homework being rewarded by candy and hugs and ultimately becoming motivated by a letter of the alphabet? In other words, is it all a matter of reinforcements? Can the way people make decisions be equated with the workings of a computer? Or might we think of all social action as being theatrical productions, where society is but a series of dramas ("The Family," "Work," etc.) wherein we act out our various roles ("Starring Me as the Oldest Brother," "And Also Featuring Jill as the Part-Time Receptionist," etc.).

In sum, at a minimum, metaphoric thinking provides order to what otherwise may be seen as random, unrelated phenomena. At a maximum, it provides an operating model or paradigm (from the Greek paradeigma, meaning an example, a model or a pattern) for the phenomena to be studied.

Here let us play with the metaphor of society as the roadways of life, the various paths on which individuals move through time and space to reach their destinations, their life goals. These pathways are not "natural" but rather are socially constructed routes, whose directions and rules vary both by culture (for instance, directed toward the capitalistic goals of competition and acquisitiveness, or, perhaps, toward some theocracy's goal of spiritual self-enlightenment) and by social attributes of its members (i.e., travelers' sex, race, age, social class or caste). 


Of all of life's realms, those routine activities requiring the most "wide awake" state--such as hunting large game, nurturing one's crops, or surviving at sea-- provide individuals with their primary orientations toward social life. In other words, activities demanding our greatest attention produce patterns of thinking that become master cognitive templates for "framing" and describing all other social experiences. In part, the essence of the phenomenon we call "culture" derives from those wide-awake experiences which are most broadly and repeatedly shared and internalized. In the simpler times in the past, this realm of common experience derived from the shared form of subsistence work required to survive--first agriculture (hence the flock and shepherd metaphors of the Bible) and later the machine. However, with the increasing specialization and differentiation of work associated with modernization, this traditional work-oriented basis for shared cultural experiences has largely dissolved.

Let us run with the proposition that the specific "wide awake" condition most widely shared in contemporary American society is the act of driving. As my driving instructor used to stress many years ago (always expecting a reaction of respectful awe due to his most mind-blowing fact), there you are rolling sixty miles-an-hour on a few thousand pounds of steel with only four hand-size pieces of rubber between you and the ground. No room here to drift into one's own little world (which may be why the highly intelligent have higher accident rates). Drivers must be of common mind if they are to reach their life's destinations. To ensure the existence of such a "common mind" there exist the "rules of the road," including norms, mores and laws.

With this metaphor let us explore some of the core sociological questions about the man and society:


Many introductory sociology texts begin with an inventory of the central theories and theorists of the discipline, developing the distinction between "macro" and "micro" sociology. From the more expansive perspectives of the former, the roadways can be viewed as analogous to society itself, appearing from the air as a complex system of arteries and veins, with vehicles appearing as small blood cells. Private driveways feed onto semiprivate residential streets, which, in turn, feed into larger and more public roads, and so on until they are linked to the super interstate highways.  

The roadway can also be viewed as a system of shared paths for taking individuals to their destinations/goals, replete with numerous mores and laws. Macro sociologists would concern themselves with such issues as the centrality of fossil fuels (instead of "Put a Tiger in Your Tank" it's "Put a Dinosaur in Your Tank") to the American political economy and its bearing on American foreign policy.


For micro-sociologists, driving provides a rich illustration of how social systems can shape their members' attention, perceptions, decision making, relationships, actions, and their very identities. Driving is an institutionalized activity, a system of  prescriptions for how we are to traverse these social pathways to reach our life's destinations, and of expectations about the behaviors of others.   

This system--e.g., the rules of the road, driving courtesies, highway culture, driving self-presentations, etc.--determines how personal needs are meshed with the social. From the individual perspective, the goal is to go from point A to point B in the minimum amount of time. But this decision affects many other people. If thousands of people also decide to go to point B, gridlock results. From society's perspective, the goal is to maximize the number of motorists reaching their destinations in the shortest possible time. Since separate roads cannot be created for each driver, rules of the road emerge. These rules allow as many drivers as possible to reach their goals in ways that minimally impede others from reaching theirs.

Social acting, like driving, is largely habitual behavior,  triggered by definitions of situations, others' behaviors, etc. Most of us mindlessly "cruise on automatic."  

Before backing out of the driveway or approaching a freeway on an entry ramp, a driver must check for the flow of traffic. Likewise, before carrying out an action such as entering into a conversation, careful analysis is required. Actors must determine the current drift of conversation as well as examining those engaging in the conversation. Analogous to waiting for passing cars, one must wait until someone has finished speaking before entering the conversation stream.


In the earliest times, trips were short and most individuals traveled together (i.e, in small hunting and gathering groups,  caravans, trains, etc.).  Here the basic social unit was not the individual but rather one's tribe or clan.  Relations were intimate, and most others were known as whole selves.  With industrialization and urbanization, persons became increasingly atomized, driving now in their own vehicles.  To live in an earlier  Gemeinschaft road culture means driving where social solidarity is high, where all drivers and pedestrians know you and your family. Here social control works thusly: Failure to observe the rules of the road would reflect poorly on both you and your kin, and undoubtedly news of your misdeeds would get back to your family.  In a Gesellschaft culture, on the other hand, roadways get more crowded, increasingly filled with strangers.  Previously disenfranchised groups, such as women and minorities, now demand their equal access.  

In the past decade, a number of social observers (i.e., Stephen Carter's Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy, Mark Caldwell's History of Rudeness: Manners, Morals, and Misbehavior in Modern America) have reported a decline in civility in modern America.  A 1996 U.S. News & World Report survey found that 89% of Americans thought incivility was a major social problem, and 78% believing that it had worsened over the past decade.  How might our metaphor or model address this phenomenon?

Indeed, during the nineties we hear more stories of road rage,  highway violence, and a growing tolerance of the Jerry Springers and Latrell Sprewells on the road.  What's happening?  In part, it is our increasing atomization and the increasingly crowded roadways.  The age of roadway politeness has past, which is why stories of Good Samaritans have become news.  Out of fear, we drive with a "don't piss off the other" ethos. From the 1980s on, Americans have become busier than ever.  Free time evaporates.  There are more stops to make.  Behind heavily shaded windows in our increasingly large vehicles, with cellular phones in hand, the distractions of auto CD players and fax machines, we have become too busy to see the proverbial "big picture."  For those who don't know where they are and are afraid to ask, there are GPS navigation systems

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