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by Phil Bartle, PhD

Training Handout

How can a poker game be used as a metaphor to explain the sociological perspective. Is it effective?

The sociological perspective is perhaps the most important concept that sociology has to offer, and is the basis on which all the topics are discussed here.

While I was trying to explain it, I hit on the idea of using a metaphor.  A metaphor may be useful for explaining a new concept, basing it on already known concepts.  Like a parable –– a story that is used the same way –– a metaphor is not to be taken literally but as an illustration of a principle.

I suggested you put the image of a poker game in your head.

From the point of view (perspective) of the players, they see the competition between themselves and each other.

They see that competition as ultimate in their game.  They play to win, and they keep that goal in mind as they make their moves.

From our point of view, outside the game, it may be easier for us to see some of the co-operation and shared values of the game.

They must agree on the meanings and values of their cards and their plays during the game.

What is important for us in the class is that it is the difference in perspective between the players and us, whether we emphasize the competition or also recognize the co-operation.

Margaret Thatcher, former British Prime Minister, epitomized the atomistic perspective when she said "There is no such thing as society; there are only individuals." She was a player, not an observer.

A few students identified the chairs and table as belonging to the technological dimension (and even the chips and beer), and the rules of the game as belonging to the values dimension.  Although I did not expect it, those were valuable additions.

At the simplest level, I believe the metaphor was useful in a first lesson.  The danger, with all metaphors, is that beginning students might take it too literally.

Perhaps, also, they might assume that we are trying to say life, and living in society, is only a game, ie not serious.

Life is serious, however, and society is not just a game, even though we may use the terminology of game playing (later, also role playing) when trying to explain society as something more than just a collection of individuals.

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