The Difference Between a Sociological and Psychological Story

I grew up in an age where the television series “Friends” was revered.

People considerably younger than me tell me that Friends is still revered, and there is probably some truth to that hypothesis. Every time I open up Netflix on my TV, Friends is regularly in the Top 10 shows in India.

Don’t worry, this is not about to turn into a snooty ol’ discussion about how Friends could be different/better. But I will say this much: I much preferred the first two to three seasons to the rest of the show. And the reason I preferred the first two or three seasons is because in my opinion, the first two or three seasons were about life happening to those six people in New York. It was observing New York through the eyes of these six people.

It helped that these six people were attractive and young. That helped in generating the kind of appeal that Friends has had for years now. But the reason why the first two or three seasons were, in my opinion, better than the latter ones is because they were sociological observations, using these lives of these six characters as a canvas. The latter seasons? Oftentimes, it seemed as if they were an extended riff on the “We were on a break” theme. In other words, it became a psychological story about what happened to these six people, and what about their psychological make-up made them take the decisions they do.

Not my phrasing (I wish it was). It simply is me applying Zeynep Tufekci’s model to the television series Friends. Here is Zeynep talking about Game of Thrones:

COWEN: TV show Game of Thrones — why does it interest you as a sociologist?

TUFEKCI: It interested me until the last season and a half —

TUFEKCI: — because before that, it was a very, very sociological thing. Here’s the thing. Here’s the difference between a sociological story and a psychological story.

In a sociological story, you can imagine yourself being almost anyone. Instead of terrible, evil characters and good people, where you just identify with the good ones — which is the classic Hollywood narrative, which is also most of human narrative, you have the good one, the bad one — it’s more like a complicated mythology where you can imagine yourself being any one of those characters, even the ones that do the terrible things, you can see yourself doing it.

The second sign of a sociological story, for me, is when nobody has plot armor because it’s the setting that’s carrying the story, with lots of people, but it doesn’t rely on one person dying or not dying. For six seasons, you have a very institutional sociology, very interesting. It’s like The Wire. People can die, but the story is still gripping because it’s sociological.

Here comes season — whichever the last season is — and all of a sudden, Arya can walk through fiery dragons and nothing happens. It just misses her by an inch. I’m like, “All right, you lost the plot here.” Plot armor essentially means you no longer have a solid sociological story.

I watched it with great interest until the end, and in the end, I’m like, “What just happened?” I wasn’t really very clear with the novel world. I learned that the novelist had run out of material, and the Hollywood showrunners were now writing the script. I’m like, “Ah, that’s what happened. They switched to the good-versus-evil story.”

They took a great story that was going to be how power corrupts, which clearly was the story, and in the end, they made the dragon lady snap just because she heard the church bells or something. [laughs] That’s not a good sociological story.

https://conversationswithtyler.com/episodes/zeynep-tufekci/

It’s a really good way (to me, at any rate) to think about why people say Seinfeld is better than Friends. Of course, you may not agree, and that’s obviously fine. But one reason why people say this might be is because Seinfeld is, to go back to my first example, about life happening to these people.

Roger Ebert, my favorite movie critic, often used to say that one shouldn’t ask what a movie is about. One should, instead ask how a movie is about whatever it is about. I can’t find the exact quote right now, but I think he was getting at the same point.


So ok, if you’re a student reading this, you’ve got one way to frame what everybody has felt about Game of Thrones. And you’ve got a way to think differently about Friends. But the large point is this: when you watch a movie, get lost in the plot and its intricacies, sure. But please, also ask yourself what you are learning about the society in which the plot, and the characters are based.

And here’s homework, if you are so inclined. How much of Michael Corleone’s decision making is a function of he being Michael Corleone, and how much of it is a function of he being who he is, in the family that he is from, the society in which he grew up, and his army background?

Or put another way: the really interesting question isn’t whether Michael and Sonny were different. In what ways were they similar, and why?

A fun thing to think about, if you ask me.


Final point: are you, like me, reminded of the Mahabharat when you read this paragraph?

In a sociological story, you can imagine yourself being almost anyone. Instead of terrible, evil characters and good people, where you just identify with the good ones — which is the classic Hollywood narrative, which is also most of human narrative, you have the good one, the bad one — it’s more like a complicated mythology where you can imagine yourself being any one of those characters, even the ones that do the terrible things, you can see yourself doing it.

https://conversationswithtyler.com/episodes/zeynep-tufekci/

Past EFE posts on Zeynep Tufekci here. Past EFE posts on sociology here.