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by Peter Moskos

June 26, 2011

In Defense of Introversion

In the New York Times today, there's an article extolling the benefits of introversion. I love reading pieces like this, which make it clear that introversion is a personality trait and not a medical problem that needs to be "cured" or treated with drugs.

My understanding of introversion began after I realized that being introverted is not the same as being shy. Rather, and more simply, introversion is simply the opposite of being an extrovert. This came to me in a great moment of self-realization after picking up a copy of Marti Laney's The Introvert Advantage that was lying around the house (my wife is more introverted than I am). I am not shy and have no fear of public speaking, yet I positively dislike mingling with strangers at parties and usually find extroverts extremely tiring. It turns out I am in introvert. This was news to me. But then it all made sense.

So I got thinking about the nature of introversion (which is in itself a very introverted reaction) and decided (conveniently) that being an introvert is better for academic participant-observation research. Why? The Times article puts it like this:
[Introverts] notice more things in general.... [and] tend to digest information thoroughly, stay on task, and work accurately ... even though their I.Q. scores are no higher than those of extroverts.
This comes from my chapter, "In Defense of Doing Nothing: The Methodological Utility of Introversion” which was recently published in New Directions in Sociology: Essays on Theory and Methodology in the 21st Century:
My goal is to introduce the psychological concept of introversion into the sociological world.
The interpersonal nature of qualitative research and the perceived “action” of participant-observation research may perpetuate a belief that extroversion is a good quality for ethnographers. In fact, nothing is further from the truth.
If you’ve ever seen a group of ethnographers party, you may be struck by a general sense that we may not have been the most popular kids in high school. Despite what is often a very lively style of writing, ethnographers can be be soft-spoken and introverted. Now don’t get me wrong: As a group, we ethnographers are hardly the dorkiest in school (a few other academic disciplines spring to mind, but for politics’ sake I’ll refrain.).

Certainly qualitative researchers must have basic social skills, but let’s be honest, no prom king or queen ever went on to write an ethnography. As a group, almost by definition, academics are nerds. We like the library. We don’t mind being alone. We walk down the street reading. We thrive in small groups and intellectual conversations. And yet mingling and making small talk with strangers is tiresome at best or frightening at worst.
Without a clear function in a social setting, the introvert’s natural reaction is to withdraw and become silent. While this may be a problem at the annual Christmas party, it can come in handy for the researcher.
With a greater understanding of introversion, I hope sociologists can take advantage of psychological traits that come naturally to many already in the field.
Are you an introvert? You can take this self assessment for introverts. I scored 21 out of 29 (which makes me a moderate introvert).


Dana King said...

Thanks for this. I scored a 22, which would surprise many of my friends. I'm what an old friend once described as a "closet introvert." I always know a joke, enjoy pubic speaking, and generally upbeat and engaged in groups of people. What most people don't see is how draining it is on me. I like it, but it wears me out.

The best definition I've heard of the difference between introverts and extroverts is that extroverts draw energy from being around others, and introverts draw their energy from being alone. They may like group activities, but they need to be alone to refresh.

PCM said...

You and me both.

That definition you provide comes from Jung, who coined the word. (it's now considered dated in the psychology world, but it still is useful sociologically.)

Mrs Gotti Rules said...

We discuss this all the time. My husband and I are opposites. I have always considered myself an introvert and he considers himself an extrovert (as if you couldn't have guessed by knowing him). We took the self-assessment and I scored 28 and he scored 11.

BTW, I have always loved my students who were introverts. I kept little reading "nooks" in the room just so they could have a quiet place to sit and read or work on something. I never wanted them to change, but I have had to help them when others think they need to be more "extroverted."

PCM said...

Yeah, I could have guessed that Gotti is extroverted.

Hell, I'm surprised he could answer any of the questions... but then I guess you probably read them to him.

What is interesting is that I wouldn't have guessed you were so introverted. But it's often hard to know when friends are introverted, because of course you're not particularly introverted among your friends.

And you keep on supporting your introverted students. One of them might be a young little Zora!

Anonymous said...


As an introvert did you find your year working as a cop tiring? Do they screen out introverts for policing? What do police agencies screen for? Did you have a psyche eval. for BPD?

I seriously considered joining the RCMP, but I'm an introvert. I think I would have been miserable. I probably would have changed careers after a couple of years. Constantly working with the public would have been draining. Years ago I once had summer job working in the hardware department of a large Canadian chain store. I was always exhausted after working a long day with customers. For me it was more tiring than construction.

Policing and retail sales just wasn't for this introvert.

p.s. The stories you've told of your dad make him seem to be a gregarious extrovert. How about your brother? Isn't he in show biz?

-From Canada (land of the introverts)

PCM said...

I think introverts make fine cops because the job involves a lot of down time. The job is not action packed 24-7.

Keep in mind I'm not shy. And I have no problem speaking in public. I could see an extreme introvert having problems problems. Because sometimes you just have to act. There's a fine line between thinking and doing the right thing and freezing and getting shot.

And extrovert cops can get bored and do stupid shit (they also probably make more traffic stops).

Extrovert: "I'm bored. Let's drive to the Southeast cause there's a stripper I want to bang and she might be outside taking a break and smoking!"

Introvert: "Slow night. I'll just park here on this drug corner and read till I hear something come out over the radio. Or maybe I'll talk a walk and patrol on foot."

Also, as a cop your role vis-a-vis the public is very well defined. So it's not hard for an introvert at all. You never have to mingle and make small talk with strangers!

And actually, my favorite call for some reason was pulling up on a big streetfight! I used to love those. Introverts can like adrenalin, too! And I loved turning disorder into order. Some extroverted cops I know were very good at doing the opposite.

And yes, everybody else in my family is an extrovert. My mom, too.

PCM said...

If you mind working with the public, that could be an issue. I like working the public, if our roles are very clearly defined. I loved waiting tables, for instance.

I've never worked in retail... but unlike retail, when you're a cop, the public is not always right!

And again, as a cop you're almost never dealing with the public for 8-hours straight.