Hi everyone, today I have a touchy and complex yet incredibly fascinating and eye-opening subject to discuss! There’s so much that can be written which makes keeping this short and succinct fairly challenging. I’ve also been ridiculously busy so it’s been hard to write…I find that very frustrating.
Let’s get into it. I’m coming to learn that the more self-aware I can become, the closer I feel to free-will: Free-will from mental illness. It’s funny that we’re talking about free will because I’m going through a mental shake up at the moment, encouraged by my fascinating sociology course. The last 6 years of my life can be described as a mental shake up but this is a new one.
One of the first lessons in class involved a Ted Talk called ‘The Sociological Imagination‘, with Sam Richards. A predominant message of the video and lesson was that even what we deem to be the most personal choices and decisions are actually a product of sociology. Everything we say, think and do is shaped by our society and its cultural context. The speaker explains having previously felt that his happiness would come from finding direction and purpose free from the influence of others. However, his perception changed drastically as he continued to study and teach sociology. How are we the drivers of our destiny if even the minute choice we make is a product of our social environment?
Trigger warning: Mentions suicide
A key example in the video is suicide. It’s difficult to think of a more personal choice and yet the speaker explains how despite each person considering taking their lives, the suicide rate will remain fairly constant, statistically speaking. The suicide rate for various demographics is far more linear than one would expect.
I want to click pause for a second. If you feel uncomfortable right now because we’re discussing suicide in the context of numbers instead of people and suffering, I get it. As part of my classwork I had to interpret a few graphs of suicide rates and we’re exploring the topic from a decidedly ‘top-heavy’ perspective. Does this bother me? A little, yes. My experience with the topic is from a very different angle; I didn’t study it, I lived it. I wanted to commit suicide to end my suffering; I attempted it and now constantly live with the knowledge of how it feels, what I did and what it would’ve done to others … In other words looking at it so coldly and clinically is very different and can at first brush seem insensitive and hurtful. There in lies part of the wondrous dichotomy of sociology which I’d like to share with you.
Why I Love Sociology
I LOVE sociology. There, I said it. Perhaps it’s not so much of a surprise. Psychology is my passion and philosophy has always been the natural lens through which I observe and experience. (Too much so, a lot of the time!) Therefore sociology fits right in. To my mind, it’s glue; the bridge between philosophy and psychology, the tool with which to use those disciplines in context…the method of application and understanding; what makes it all relative, pertinent and concrete. (Not concrete as in definite, because these subjects are far from definite, but more tangible. Visible, observable, quantifiable, etc.) Sociology is a magnificent tool that can open doors and broaden minds.
Going back to the touchy subject, this is why I can take such a form of discussing suicide. Because I know that we’re not diminishing the pain or suffering. At least I’m not, and I deeply sense that the speaker isn’t either. Some people may, but that doesn’t mean sociological thinking = insensitivity and callousness. People will be people and ironically, it’s their sociological experience and lack of sociological imagination that have led them to their ways of thinking. This demonstrates how (as with everything) sociology is a double-edged sword.
Sociology for Everyone
The use that I suggest for everyone, (because sociology shouldn’t be limited to professors, human resource disciplines, etc.), is an intuitive comprehension of the subject rather than a technical grasp. I don’t think we all need to know the specific terminology; that’s very useful in certain contexts and perfectly fine for anyone interested, but I think there’s a different purpose for sociology in our everyday lives. I’m talking about a sociology for students, teachers, truck drivers, accountants…anyone and everyone. Why? Because we stand to gain both on an individual and collective level. To me, that’s a pretty big deal and one of the reasons why I find it sad that many people find sociology dry, boring or useless. I find it to be quite the opposite!
(Many of my thoughts are inspired by the Ted Talk and my course; I take no credit for any repetitions, I just very much appreciate Sam Richards’ video and the class material!)
The Benefits of having a ‘Sociological Imagination’:
- It helps us to better understand the wide and diverse world around us.
- It consequently helps us situate ourselves within the world and within our smaller social context.
- It can lead to a deeper connection with all people.
- It greatly aids in the deconstruction of racism, sexism, stigma, religious prejudice, etc.
- Personal problems can be understood in relation to the bigger picture, helping us feel less alone and joined in solidarity.
The Fascinating Duality
Going back to the dichotomy of sociology, one of these lies in how there are 2 ways one can ‘come away’ from sociology (discounting the “I don’t care about sociology” perspective): One can feel empowered, motivated and interested, or, convinced that free-will doesn’t exist and everything is pointless. Quite a difference! Allow me to explain why I think this is the case.
If you tell someone that all the choices they make – from small to big – are actually rooted in the fabric of the context in which live … it’s a bit of a shocker. For some like me who border existentialism as normally as checking the weather, it can be a more significant blow.
Feeling as though no choice is solely our own can be disturbing and difficult to process. It appears to take away from messages that we enjoy believing in, such as: “Everyone is unique”, “You hold the key to your destiny”, etc. One can easily fall down the rabbit hole of insignificance and powerlessness. How independent are we if, to use an example from class, even our clothing choices are rooted in sociology and shaped by innumerable exterior factors? Let’s look at how the 4 main sociological theories explain the fashion industry.
We have Functionalism suggesting that high fashion trends enable a continuity of social inequity by appealing to the wealthy as a manner of distinguishing themselves from those of lower tax brackets. Due to the rise of technology and the speed of cheaper reproduction, these styles must be updated more frequently. Then we have Conflict Theory postulating that huge players in fashion, marketing, etc. use rapid trend cycles to generate greater profit. At the same time, it serves as a focus to distract consumers from social issues and tensions. Symbolic Interactionism later steps in to explain the influence consumers have on fashion trends. The fluctuations of our identity can cause insecurity which is where clothing comes in as a means to express these shifts. Our choices convey many things from sexual identity and availability to our level of progressiveness or traditionalism. Lastly we have Feminism describing how the fashion industry impacts the social construction of gender and how the female body has been sexualized for a very long time.
Now think about what you’re wearing today…what made you buy those clothes in the store…why you’ll dress differently for work than you will for a club, birthday or religious gathering. Pretty mind-blowing eh? And that was a relatively small example!
I’d now like to share some paraphrased quotes from The Promise by jsjs and my course material:
- Neither the life of the individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both. The individual can understand their experience and gauge their fate only through locating themselves in the period and being aware of others in similar circumstances.
- There can be a sense of being trapped when one is bound by the private orbit but becomes aware of ambitions and threats which transcend the immediate locale.
- Interpersonal changes in society and structure greatly influence the success or failure of individuals. Here are some broad cause-and-effect examples:
As an area becomes industrialized, a peasant becomes a worker. When the investment rate goes up or down, a person may take heart and strive for better or go broke and lose everything. When war breaks out careers are changed, children may lose a parent or even become orphans, a boy becomes a hardened man, etc.
Let’s fast forward to these years of the pandemic: A multi-generational family business goes bankrupt, ugly realities swept under the carpet can no longer be ignored, those with real estate profit from the dramatic increase of prices, a poverty-line family who was barely scraping by can no longer afford rent or food with the rise of inflation, etc.
- In the overdeveloped world, means of authority and violence become total in scope and bureaucratic in form.
- Individuals, in the welter of daily experience often become falsely conscious of their social positions.
- The personal uneasiness of individuals is focussed upon explicit troubles and the indifference of publics is transformed into involvement with public issues.
We have some pretty sizeable chunks of philosophy/sociology right here and I think we need to pause and reflect on what it all means. Right now we have one-dimensional theory brought to the second dimension with the help of some examples. Let’s take it further now to make the concepts full-bodied; sociology is nothing when it remains on the page of a textbook.
A large part of these concepts can be boiled down to meaning – or more precisely – assigned meaning. Things have as much meaning as we give them. Here are some examples:
- Let’s say someone who is superstitious witnesses something deemed unlucky (a black cat for example). If something bad happens, they’re likely to associate it with the black cat even though there’s no real correlation.
- Memorabilia works similarly: Just ask yourself if you would let a stranger clean up some boxes of old keepsakes for you and determine what to put aside or throw out. Never gonna happen right? Because even though you might never use the harmonica that’s been gathering dust, it’s from your grandfather who you never met. See what I mean?
Basically in our everyday lives we assign meaning on a smaller scale … but this also happens on a larger scale and it often informs the meaning we derive in our own smaller bubble. Example:
- There is no scientific basis for skin pigmentation meaning anything other than an adaptation for UV protection. (Oversimplified, but you know what I’m saying.) Racism exists because of sociocultural notions that have been passed down. In other words false associations of inferiority are an example of assigned meaning that we still have trouble combatting as a culture.
Now let’s look at career and tax bracket, which links perfectly to the quote earlier on; “Individuals, in the welter of daily experience often become falsely conscious of their social positions” (The Promise). What do you take from this? To me it reflects how we get caught up in social hierarchies which, like racism, have been passed down. Status is huge to people; it’s a key part to our self-definition and how we relate this to others we encounter. It’s how we want to be viewed and understood, it’s the reason why “what do you do for a living?” is one of the top questions when strangers meet. We’ve been trained knowingly or unknowingly into interpreting things a certain way, and the same way. Meanings and associations are ‘a flip of a brain switch’ away.
Here’s proof with a quick exercise. What do you think of when I say doctor, lawyer and CEO? Now what do you think of when I say teacher, cashier and salesperson? There’s a difference right? Let’s look at some quick word association that might’ve popped up.
- Big house
- High formal education
- Average income
- ‘Sleazy salesman’
- For teacher: Respect, valued by community, empathy for salary troubles
- Lower education
These are just some spontaneous thoughts and are of course highly variable. Still, I think it goes to show how we do this sort of thing in many contexts. It’s about forming connections between what would otherwise be a vast array of ‘facts’ with indiscernible meaning – very confusing for human beings. This way we have a blueprint of how we’re generally expected to act, what is normal vs. abnormal, etc. Since we first started walking and hunting then thinking and creating, we’ve been passing down a survival guide of sorts.
I really want to publish this blog and it bothers me that I can’t expand on the topic to my liking. There’s just so much involved that it’s impossible to do it full justice. I know that as I learn more I’ll continue writing about this but for now I’ll close the discussion with a brief takeaway. Stay tuned for subsequent parts! One of my next blogs will be about intension vs. behaviour which have a firm basis in Sociology.
Here goes the conclusion: If much of this comes down to meaning and interpretation, I think there’s a pretty beautiful message to be taken away: Yes, much of our lives are influenced; yes, in ways we probably most often don’t understand and yes, in the grand scheme of things we’re tiny specks. Does this detract from the meaning of our lives? Does this negate free-will? I really don’t think so. Even if social construction is everywhere, we have A LOT of decisions to make for our own lives. We have a huge amount of power and much of that stems from our attitude – our way of attributing meaning to things.
I think it’s perfectly possible for someone to find little meaning and personal power in their lives which is a huge contributor/conjoined twin of depression and anxiety. “It all means nothing, my life is pointless, I can’t change anything, the world is messed up, I’ll never be happy, etc.”
On the other hand there’s great freedom that can be derived from a strong conceptual understanding of ‘the Sociological Imagination’. “I’m not alone, my struggles are shared. I may be small but being part of this larger structure enables me to take part in change. I don’t like this aspect of the world, therefore I choose to lessen its hold over me and increase the meaning of things that give me pleasure and personal fulfilment instead. I have the power to shape my inner reality.”
Voila! How does this make you feel? I’d love to hear from you!