Whuffling Through the Social Sciences

IN THIS EPISODE: Shopsitter Andrew Whalen gets more than he bargained for while trying to impose a little order on life’s chaos….

Things got a little too real today when I tore apart the “-Ology” bookshelf and set out to rebuild it. This shelf contains folklore, sociology, anthropology, self-help, career advice and research best practices.

At first reorganizing was fun. In a confusing world it can be comforting to establish hierarchies and draw borders. This is the appeal of the low-stakes nerd debate. Does it matter if Kirk or Picard were the better starship captain? No, but it feels good to put things in order (this one always seemed easy to me: one survived the reign of Kodos the Executioner, has the middle name Tiberius, passed the Kobayashi Maru test, and defeated conqueror-of-all-Asia Khan Noonien Singh… the other is Picard).

But some chaos cannot be cornered, tagged and boxed. Some chaos can only be whuffled, which is the word I made up to describe the sensation and action of bottling various fogs. Or the word I thought I had made up until I typed it into a search engine and found it used to describe sniffling, gentle affection and thankless online forum moderation. If we’re going by my definition (not endorsed by the Internet) it’s a feeling that accompanies so much of what we try to set in place. And the more I stared down the “-Ology” shelf, the more I begin to think the whole world is made of whuffle.

Yes, whuffle is verb, adjective and noun. It’s very versatile.

Before the “-Ology” shelf this uncertainty seemed very abstract to me. It came up primarily when considering genre. Is it fantasy just because there are swords? Is it sci-fi just because there are spaceships? Read Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun and get back to me. Welcome back. See what I mean? And that’s before we get into odd-balls like Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Thomas Pynchon, and Margaret Atwood. No wonder people just gave up and invented the term speculative fiction.

The “-Ology” shelf was supposed to be different. It represents entirely separate realms of human knowledge! It’s like a UN of social sciences, each field a tiny nation-state with its own territories and agendas.

But my distinct borders kept getting knocked down. What to do with Typetalk, which purports to be a study of the Myers-Brigg Type Indicator, but has self-help cover language promising to aid in determining how you “live, love and work”? Things only blurred more from there. When is a study on families anthropology and when is it sociology? Are Coping with Difficult People and Coping with Difficult Bosses really so different that they should be three shelves apart, one in sociology, the other in career guidance? ARGH.

So I started fresh, with a new theory. I could arrange the shelf like a continuity. There was a spectrum at play, beginning with psychology: the individual opening up onto the family, expanding into the society, then reaching out to other societies and forms of governance before finally drilling back down into the individual stories each society treasures. Brain to Folklore, with all of human experience in between. Made total sense for like two seconds. But things just got worse. And by the end I had almost convinced myself that Life-Span Developmental Psychology and Normative Life Crises was interchangeable with Folklore in the English and Scottish Ballads.

I look at the shelf now and see nothing but whuffle. No matter how hard we try (I’m looking at you, Dewey, with all your decimals) nothing exists entirely separate and apart. Categories are cool, but they are never definite. All things interlock and nothing is simple. But as maddening and confusing as that can get for the bookshelf organizer, it probably makes for a more interesting world.

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7 Comments

Filed under book reviews, folklore and ethnography, humor, Uncategorized, VA

7 responses to “Whuffling Through the Social Sciences

  1. Love this, Andrew. You’re clearly the right person for this job!

  2. Mario R.

    [laughs] Love this post, too. And I have every sympathy — I catalogue books in a large research library. Same sort of “where does this book belong?” whuffling — the one advantage being that one is allowed more than one subject heading, and applies the call number (and hence assigns a place on one particular shelf) only to the subject that gets the most space, overall, in the book. Makes life a whole lot simpler. 😉 –Mario R.

  3. Glen Moody

    Yep, it’s a malady and madalogy (we can all make up words, can’t we) that many a bibliologist has succumbed to. I fight the same fight every day in my new and used bookstore. Some folks are quite upset that we mix new and used titles on the same shelf; they seem to think that we should segregate “like new” and “really new” into two distinct worlds. As a professional sociologist and theologian, don’t get me started on the “ology” sections. I relate to the concept that it all makes sense in your mind………….until you start reshelving.

  4. Suggestion from a librarian: don’t bring Dewey into it unless you’re prepared to reorganize the entire store, stem to stern, and to put your own common sense and instincts in direct contention with another man’s. Having recently browsed that very -Ology shelf, I believe it alone should be enough to keep you busy for a while. Dewey was an optimist indeed, wasn’t he, striving to develop a method of classification for a very whuffly world?

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