June 7, 2010

What's in a word?

Sociologists would answer the question posed in the title with this answer: EVERYTHING! Words may just be words to others, but sociologists earn their living analyzing what certain words mean in certain social and historical contexts. Consider the word "dispute." Synonyms for dispute include: argument, controversy, contention, rumpus. Quarrel, bickering, miff, squabble, tiff, wrangle. All words that mean something about discord, about disagreement, but of a rather mild sort. Small children quarrel over who gets to sit next to the window. Long married people squabble over who left dirty socks on the floor again. Close friends get in a tiff when one of them criticizes the other's new hairstyle. Adults engage in controversy over politics. Neighbors get in a dispute over the new fence that may be just a tad over the property line. Sure, there is conflict inplied in the word "dispute", but it's comparably mild and not necessarily violent. Maybe children will tussle in their quarrel, and friends may hang up on each other in a huff. Perhaps neighbors will take each other to court to settle a property line dispute, or adults may raise their voices in a passionate discussion about politics, but ordinarily, no one would expect anyone to pull out a knife or a bomb or a gun to settle a dispute.

Until we insert the word "domestic" in front of dispute.

Under most state laws, "domestic dispute" is simply a quarrel between family members or people who live in the same household. Domestic means household, and in the US, we generally interpret domestic as meaning something about family and the private household.

Read this article about a man who killed four women, wounded three others, and then killed himself: http://www.cnn.com/2010/CRIME/06/07/florida.shooting/index.html?hpt=T2
Note that the police explained the violence as resulting from "some sort of domestic dispute." Critical power conflict theorists would analyze the use of this term as a deliberate ploy to minimize and trivialize the murders. You will recall that critical power conflict theorists interpret social phenomenon like this as evidence that certain groups in society organize to maintain their power over other groups. Feminist conflict theorists understand patriarchy as a social system designed to maintain masculine power over women, children, and less-masculine men. One of the best ways to maintain power is to use violence or the threat of violence against other groups. Recall also that critical power conflict theorists believe that dominant groups invent ideologies that explain and justify their dominance over others. Use of a trivializing and minimizing phrase to explain the mass shooting--"some sort of domestic dispute"--neatly explains and justifies the man's actions as "merely" being a domestic dispute gone bad. Where feminist conflict theorists would claim that the act is an example of gender terrorism, members of the dominant patriarchal group would claim that this is just a sad end to a household quarrel. You have probably also seen dominant group members claim that victims of violence "probably deserved it". "What did she expect?" they might say. "Why didn't she leave him earlier?" is another question commonly posed to victims of gender terrorism.

I have discussed the article, especially the use of the term "domestic dispute", using critical power conflict theory. How could the murders or other aspects of the incident be analyzed using symbolic interactionism? Or structural functionalism? I can think of lots of ways--but it's your turn to step on the soapbox now!
photo above from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/06/07/gerardo-regalado-miami-gu_n_603061.html


  1. Words can definitely alter the way we view a subject. For an example: a recent controversial subject is water boarding as a form of torture during interrogation. Everyone will agree that when we hear of "interrogation" our social experience would have us believe harm is being done to another human being and this is wrong. In order to change our perception on this the government merely changed the words to "enhanced interview". I will let you make your own conclusion to what this means but I can assure you the physical act is the same.
    To apply this to one of the social paradigms I would equate changing the meaning of words to the critical power conflict. In order to allow the practice of questioning prisoners in this way to continue it was necessary to make the process sound more pleasing. The practice continues in some form or fashion because those approving the process understand its necessity and know that in order to maintain their control over the situation they must hide the original meaning. Of course the change in the label must be comparable to the degree of conflict. If the practice would have been changed to “patient questioning”; those who approve of this questioning would be asked further questions which undermine authority.

  2. When the title asked, "what's in a word" the first word that came to mind in relation to the reading was "domestic." The Encarta dictionary indicates that while it relates to familial ties it can also mean "enjoying family life." It can also symbolize being tame, as in a wild animal that has been “domesticated,” and yet this incident is so far from either of those. So in this context “domestic dispute” is an oxymoron, it is impossible to achieve domesticity in the midst of a dispute.
    Structural Functionalists believe social institutions perform essential tasks within society and as such they maintain a level of stability. The police chief used the term within a social context we have been conditioned to understand; domestic disputes are a private issue versus a public issue. When groups in power, use terminology to minimize assault or murder it is to downplay the serious nature, because if it is not serious then no real action needs to be taken to protect victims. When the institution of family/home is dysfunctional, society as a whole risks instability, so to Structural Functionalists this private issue has public ramifications. Critical Power Conflict theorists would see powerful groups trying to invent ideologies, such as “domestic dispute,” to justify inaction as the only recourse society has in the matter. Again taking the power from the victim and giving it to society to determine what value, if any, we place on life.
    Hmm, guess my soapbox was taller than I imagined.

  3. Structural functionalists would agree that words can change a person and these changes come far too quickly. If a three year hears the word "horny", the next thing you know that is all that is on thier mind. This may seem minor to some but it can quickly multiply and eventually change our moral outlook.

    + - ATLANTA — The fast food-chain Wendy's has pulled a disco CD included in kids' meals because of racy lyrics in one of the songs.

    The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that one of the songs on the Disco Fever CD was Donna Summer's "Last Dance." The song has two sets of lyrics. One version includes the words "so bad." But some heard the alternative lyrics "so horny" on the CD, which had been marked as safe for 3 years old and up.


  4. "marked as safe for 3 years old"!?