Sociological New Year's Resolutions
New Year’s resolutions are good examples of rituals—social customs or practices that members of a group participate in to symbolize a shared value. The majority of New Year’s resolutions consist of promises we make to ourselves for self improvement. Some of the most popular New Year’s resolutions include: drink less alcohol, get a better education, get a better job, get fit, lose weight, manage debt, manage stress, quit smoking, save money, take a trip.
All of these resolutions are aimed at personal transformation and they all arise out of knowledge we have gained or an awareness we have developed. We learn something about our situation—we’ve put on a few extra pounds, we’re often feeling stressed, we’re spending too much money—and we make a commitment to improve our behavior.
So what might sociological New Year’s resolutions look like? How might we promise to change our behavior because of things we have learned or become more aware of sociologically? I offer the following New Year’s resolutions that one might make after studying sociology. Keep in mind that whereas typical New Year’s resolutions are usually focused on changes that will primarily help the individual these sociological resolutions will largely generate social benefits.
1. I will not rely on psycho-biological arguments to explain social phenomena. In The Sociological Imagination, C. Wright Mills refers to this as a psychologism: the erroneous attempt to explain social reality by relying on the make-up of individuals. How many times have you said things such as: “That’s just who I am.” “Boys will be boys.” “Poverty exists because people are lazy.” Statements like these ignore all of the social conditions that created who you are, that explain why males act the way they do, and that account for why we have such persistent inequality.
Psychologisms are all too common in our society because we are not taught to see the world sociologically. Instead, we learn to reduce social phenomena to individual behavior and therefore we fail to see that social issues are social in origin. What is most disturbing about psychologisms is that they do not offer us—both as individuals and as society—much hope or possibility for change. After all, if such things are truly part of our psycho-biological make-up how could we ever hope to overcome them?
2. I will use inclusive, non-biased, and non-oppressive language. Many of us do not realize that language is a powerful social structure. We may think that language is a just an innocent assemblage of words but this is a naïve understanding of the influence of language. We use words to define and name the world in which we live. In doing so, words shape our social reality by identifying what is acceptable, normal, and appropriate. When I was growing up in the 1970s and 80s, it was common to hear people use words like “gay,” “faggot,” and “retarded” to suggest that something or someone is dumb, stupid, or ridiculous. Using these words as put-downs, as I know some people still use them today, is an example of biased and oppressive language because these words are being used to dehumanize others.
If you doubt the power of language consider the so-called N-word (or other racial epithets) and think about how such words were used and why they are no longer acceptable. For another example, you might want to read Sheryl Kleinman’s classic article, “Why Sexist Language Matters.” Kleinman argues that using male pronouns generically to refer to all humans—you guys, freshman, Congressman, postman, mankind—reinforces gender inequality and privileges males over females. Just address the next group of men you encounter as “you girls” and you’ll quickly understand the way in which language shapes and is shaped by society.
3. I will strive to recognize my biases and assumptions and then I will try to overcome them. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu uses the term reflexivity to suggest that we should analyze our own preconceptions and be aware of how they may prejudice or distort our understanding of reality. This perspective amounts to a “sociology of sociology” where we are not afraid to critique our own views in much the same way that we quickly critique the views held by others (to paraphrase sociologist Alvin Gouldner). Even those who claim to be sociologically enlightened have biases, prejudices, stereotypes, and hidden assumptions. As Barbara Trepagnier argues in Silent Racism: How Well-Meaning White People Perpetuate the Racial Divide, the challenge is to acknowledge these biases and then work actively to transcend them.
Did you know that if everyone in the world consumed as many resources and expelled as much waste as the typical American then the earth could not sustain itself? You can take the ecological footprint quiz to see how many earths would be needed if everyone lived like you (I’m embarrassed to say we would need 3.5 earths if everyone lived like me).
As Annie Leonard demonstrates in her video The Story of Stuff, everything that we produce and consume can be connected to social, political, and environmental issues around the globe. In other words, we must recognize that we live in an interdependent world in which all life on earth—and all living beings—are intimately connected. Interdependence is one of the most basic and most important concepts in sociology. Unfortunately, in our materialistic, competitive, and hyper-individualistic culture it’s also one of the most forgotten. Once you realize that we are all mutually dependent and that we all rely on each other then the next step is to start basing at least some of your decisions on this understanding.
5. I will not only study sociology; I will also do sociology. A few months ago I wrote a blog called Doing Sociology. The idea behind doing sociology is that we take what we are learning and we extend it outward. It’s very similar to what Wayne Martin Mellinger wrote about in his blog called Praxis. This idea is not new to sociology but it has been ignored and forgotten by too many in the discipline.
Marx, Max Weber, Jane Addams, W.E.B. DuBois, and even so-called “conservatives” such as Auguste Comte and Emile Durkheim—engaged in sociological research as a means to eradicate social ills. In other words, these sociologists did not just study the social world because it seemed interesting; rather, they engaged in social research to make society better. And this makes perfect sense. After all, what’s the point of learning about things such as privilege, inequality, oppression, and other social problems if you just keep this knowledge to yourself?
When we make our typical New Year’s resolutions we do so to improve our lives. We promise to change our behaviors as a way to bring about personal transformation. These five sociological New Year’s resolutions also encourage us to change our behaviors but the result is not so much personal transformation as it is social transformation. If they are practiced widely and frequently and are not broken (like most New Year’s promises) then these sociological resolutions just may bring about social revolutions. And then we really would have a New Year.