I recently finished watching a DVD of Mad Men season 5. This year I’ve watched all of the seasons. Which is a good example of Scott Lash’s observation that DVD box sets are part of what he calls ‘intensive culture’. Watching whole series, often about 13 or 14 hours worth, in a few days, is a kind of speeded up engagement with TV. Before I’ve tried to think about the sociological imagination in popular culture. This included some work on TV drama. The argument of that work was that popular culture is full of imaginative engagements with sociological issues. In one case we took the TV show The Wire and looked in some detail at its sociological content and tendencies. This was part of a broader attempt to unravel these dense vernacular forms of sociology. Rather than write an equivalent article, or set of articles, about Mad Men I thought I’d just put a couple of thought’s on here.
One of the things about Mad Men is that it’s sociological tendencies are far less clearly defined than something like The Wire. Mad Men is an entirely ambivalent show. It has some similarities with The Wire. Not least in its exploration of complex forms of emergence, with small events spiralling into more significant outcomes (sometimes several episodes or even seasons later). Mad Men and The Wire also share an exploration of how broader social, political and organisational changes directly shape the lives, circumstances and behaviours of the characters. This weaving of personal biographies and broader social issues is, of course, at the heart of C Wright Mill’s original conception of the sociological imagination. Mad Men does this in a variety of ways. Sometimes these relate to economic changes, with advertising spend being shaped by strikes, downturns and the like. In other instances the show also explores cultural trends, race and prejudice, generational differences and the norms of affluent middle class life. Each of which create different kinds of backdrops that have implications for the characters that we are following.
The issue with Mad Men is that this exploration of what are sociological issues through the central characters is so deeply woven into the episodes that it is quite hard to unpick. Instead it is perhaps more of an impressionistic form of the sociological imagination. The Wire was more realist in its sociological accounts. Mad Men is based more on loose impressions of the sociological issues that are often embedded in the show’s background. It is less direct, with the characters lives being the focal point and the social circumstances that shape their conditions lurking in the shadows of the show.
Whereas we previously described The Wire as being an example of Andrew Abbott’s lyrical sociology, perhaps Mad Men is closer to Nigel Thrift’s non-representational theory. But that might be a bit extreme. I think though that we might think of Mad Men as providing various types of sociological impressions. These are moments in which the wider social and cultural issues of the time are embodied in the characters lives. We get impressions of these issues through the specific experiences of those characters – rather than in their totality or from a broader perspective. What is hard to separate in Mad Men are the issues that might be specifically and peculiarly personal and the issues that are driven by these broader social transformations, problems or structural barriers. These connections and linkages are built, inextricably, into the messiness of the show’s milieu. Perhaps the shaping of the characters’ lives by their circumstances becomes most visible during those moments when they lose control or where they are more obviously hopeless in the choices they have. Here the structure most clearly comes to impinge on their agency. The use of wars and experiences of war might be an example of this. Or the occasions when political elections or human rights marches shape their conditions. But these can also operate on a smaller scale. In the last series, for example, this happens when a strike at an airline, which is part of a broader social unrest, leads to a delay in the Christmas bonuses which then ultimately leads to the suicide of a character. In these moments the weaving of personal biographies with social problems becomes more pronounced and less impressionistic.
Whatever the reading though, Mad Men is one example of a range of shows that directly and indirectly explore sociological issues and which demonstrate a kind of sociological imagination at work in popular culture. Mad Men’s impressionistic sociology is quite subtle but it provides a neat vision of how social chaos and messiness mix into personal biographies. It does this without being reductive. At moments though it switches to a mode in which social developments have more direct causal influences in the characters. Perhaps the psychoanalytic beginnings of the show hint though at why an element of personality and individual psychology is maintained rather than these characters simply becoming a direct product of the powerful forces of their 1960s environment (however accurate those depictions of that era might be).