Ph.D. candidate compares French and American gender views
Ben Moodie, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of California, Berkley, presented his dissertation at the College on Wednesday, Nov. 9. His lecture, entitled “The Sociological Truth of Fiction,” focused on his thesis, “The continuities and differentiations in implicit gender views, in France and America from 1950 until now.”
Moodie, who is currently a professor of sociology at Bowdoin College, began the lecture by reading a story entitled “The Last Fight,” published anonymously by the French Magazine Nous Deux in 1957. Comparing the themes of “The Last Fight” to similar American stories, Moodie demonstrated how stories could be used to examine differences in cultural values.
While Moodie acknowledges the view that “sociologists of culture lost confidence that cultur[al] artifacts themselves can be interpreted as evidence of culture,” he disagrees with this idea, believing that cultural artifacts, like stories, transmit culture.
Moodie does not subscribe to the common belief that cultural artifacts cannot be used to study a culture because the meaning changes depending upon the audience’s interpretation of the artifacts. These individual interpretations are influenced by the audience member’s own culture and beliefs.
Moodie’s main argument focused on the “hierarchy of meaning in fictional context,” a tool he uses to break down the levels of meaning within a text. These levels include linguistic meaning (the derivation and definitions of the words themselves), narrative meaning, the internal significance of the text and finally external significance (what outside knowledge the audience member brings to their reading of the text). Each level builds on the one before it.
Breaking down these levels of meaning allows one to better analyze fictional texts as an artifact of the culture that produced it. Then Moodie used this hierarchy of meaning to show that the higher levels of meaning required more specific cultural knowledge, and that “the higher levels permit greater scope for interpretation.”
Moodie showed that this hierarchy concludes stories relevant to cultural interpretation and are therefore valid artifacts for sociological study. He reached this conclusion by emphasizing the need for societal understanding of stories, and by his concluding that “stories are a crystallization of cultural reactions.” Moodie’s findings emphasized that cultural interpretations of ideas and the current world views of such ideas reinforce each other.
John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Professor of Sociology and African-American Studies Cheryl Townsend Gilkes attended the lecture and said, “I’m interested in how to use fiction in sociology classes.” She took great interest in Moodie’s argument. “I agreed with what [Moodie] was saying,” Gilkes said. “We need to use increased amounts of current cultural artifacts, like fiction, in the study of sociology.”