The ideal-real dichotomy and the importance of observation

A screenshot from Y Tu Mamá También, a film where ideals and realities collide dramatically (because I never claimed I don't watch movies).

Whenever discussion turns toward TV, I always make it a point to claim vociferously, “I’ve never heard of that show. I don’t watch TV. As a matter of fact, I haven’t watched TV since middle school. Maybe since I was an infant! Actually, could someone remind me, what is TV?!”

If you were to do a participant observation of my life, you would discover that, in fact, I do watch television shows. Or at least a television show. Specifically, I watch episodes of the sitcom 30 Rock that are available on-demand on Netflix. When I get to the last streamable episode, I start over again at season 1. Additionally, I’ve watched a few scattered TV episodes with friends or family. As such I’ve watched about 50 hours of television in the past year–a number which contradicts my repeated claim that I do not, under any circumstances, watch TV. (Sidenote: the average American watches about two months worth of TV in one year.)

Most people call this contradiction “hypocrisy” or “posing” or “being a hipster.” Anthropologists, being all sciencey and objective-like, call such divergences between word and action the ideal-real dichotomy. Ideal behavior is what people should do or how they should behave in a particular situation. Real behavior is how people actually behave. The prototypical example of the ideal-versus-the-real is traffic lights:

Most people will say that when a light turns yellow, you should slow down. If you actually stand on a street corner and observe traffic when the light turns yellow, however, you will notice people actually speed up instead of slowing down. Slowing down is the ideal behavior in that situation, though speeding up, what actually happens, is the real behavior.

This is why keen observational skills are important. Obviously, we are not all Anthro Department grad students conducting fieldwork for our Masters theses. But in a way we are all participant observers in the mass cultural performance that is life–“all the world’s a stage.” So it pays be a shrewd observer. If you just listen to people’s words you might get trapped in an ideal fabrication and miss out on what’s really going on. After all, most of what’s going on around us is much more significant than a yellow light or a 20-something’s TV habits.


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