Academic journal article Theory in Action

Reference and Perception: Towards a Social Relativism Perspective

Academic journal article Theory in Action

Reference and Perception: Towards a Social Relativism Perspective

Article excerpt


Social reference asserts the idea that any reality exists in reference of another. Specifically, perception of a reality or interpretation of the reality is usually inferred from the reference of the actor.2 Although research in the reference concept may be relatively recent, the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi (369-286 BC)3 described relativistic thought over 2000 years ago. Revitalizing this philosophical thought and bringing it up to date as one of the sociological perspectives through rigorous and empirical tests can be a contribution to Western developed sociological paradigms. Alike and different from such traditional perspectives as functionalism, conflict theory, symbolic interactionism, and exchange theory, etc., social reference theory can be another valid standpoint for viewing and interpreting the social world and human interaction.

Relativistic thought is a major part of Zhuangzi's philosophy. One of his representative statements is "Bi Yi Yi Shi Fei, Ci Yi Yi Shi Fef ((ProQuest: ... denotes non-USASCII text omitted.)), meaning that "that person has a different view of right or wrong from this person." We can interpret this line like this: There is nothing absolutely right or wrong, because different people have different views of the same social fact, and the different views are formed with different references. For example, raining is good and right for those people who have been experiencing tremendous drought, but bad and wrong for those already flooded. According to Zhuangzi and his relativism, nothing is absolute and everything is relative. Humans define size based on the human body size as its reference, although the space is indefinite to both ends (large and small). For example, a tree is to an ant is as a large island to a human being. Further, humans define time based on their life span as its reference, although time is indefinite. For example, one week to a butterfly may be as 1 00 years to a human being.

In daily life, we are most unaware of our own referential mentality. Inasmuch as we are embedded in our culture, it is most of the time subconscious. Sherif and colleagues (1958) found that when subjects first lifted a heavy weight, they underestimated the weight of lighter weights they were subsequently asked to lift. It seems that no knowledge or feelings can be obtained without a reference, and the reference is usually the starting point of knowledge. Knowledge does not initiate in a vacuum.

When you meet two other people, you are likely to compare each against the other on several dimensions to decide which you prefer. This may include physical beauty, similarity of interests and various personality factors. A simple physical way of illustrating perceptual contrast is to put one hand into hot water and other into cold water, then move them both to lukewarm water. The cold hand will feel hot and the hot hand will feel cold. To get someone to buy something expensive, first show them something even more expensive (Cialdini, 1993; Sherif, Taub, & Hovland, 1958). These experiments tell us that when people make decisions, they tend to do it by contrasting between the decision item and reference items. When two things appear close to one another, we will tend to evaluate them against one another more than against a fixed standard, and they could happen most of the time subconsciously.

The subconscious reference mentality is best illustrated via some visual perception experiments. As shown in Figure 1, the two light colored railroad ties are actually of the same length, but they appear to be unequal in the context of the railway in the perspective drawing. In Figure 2, the horizontal bar in the middle of the frame is actually of the same degree of the grey color throughout, but it looks like dark to the right and light to the left.

The reference mentality can be consciously implemented. We often do comparative studies, in both natural and social sciences. …

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