Happy Interdependence Day!
I’m borrowing the title of this blog from a former student of mine, Hayley, who always used to say this to people on July 4th. As an insightful sociologist, Hayley realized none of us, as individuals or as a nation, can exist without the support and help of others. Therefore, we should really be celebrating and promoting our interdependence instead of our independence.
Interdependence is the notion that we all rely on each other. To say that we are interdependent is to recognize that we are all connected and dependent on one another. But interdependence does not just mean that all people are connected; it also suggests an understanding of how all life on earth is linked together. Sometimes we refer to this as the interconnected web of life.
On a personal level, thinking interdependently moves us away from focusing exclusively on the individual and toward in the direction of thinking socially. It is a way to see the bigger picture instead of seeing reality from a narrow and limited view. When we have an interdependent perspective, we are able to see that our individual successes and failures are not solely our own but rather are connected to a whole set of people, places, and things that we may not even be aware of.
For example, consider a successful athlete. She may work hard in the gym and on the playing field, but she did not achieve success on her own. She needed coaches, teachers, trainers, family, and friends to guide, encourage, and provide for her; janitors and grounds crew to keep playing surfaces safe and clean; factory workers to make athletic apparel and equipment; construction workers to build athletic arenas; bus drivers to transport her to and from events; stadium workers to assist the fans who come out to support her; food workers to produce the meals and drinks she needs for energy—and we can’t forget non-human things such as the plants that produce the oxygen that fills her lungs with air.
This is what is meant by thinking interdependently on a personal level. If you give it some thought, you should be able to identify the interdependent connections for successful students, musicians, entrepreneurs, politicians, and others, just as you can identify the interdependent connections that lead to so-called personal failures such as living in poverty, being in jail, dropping out of school, or getting divorced.
Thinking interdependently is not a way to ignore or excuse personal responsibility; instead, it is a way to recognize that we do not exist in our own little bubbles. Our actions and behaviors, as well as the resulting outcomes and consequences, must be understood as part of a larger constellation of forces. As it says on the t-shirts we once had made in my sociology department: It’s not about YOU, it’s about SOCIETY.
On the political level, thinking interdependently means that we build on this personal perspective and recognize that if we are all connected then we can use this insight to effect positive social change. This idea of interdependent power was coined by Frances Fox Piven in her 2007 Presidential Address to the American Sociology Association, “Can Power from Below Change the World?” Piven argues that power is not just structural, it is also relational. Those with power rely on those without power to accomplish their goals. This sentiment is similar to something Max Weber once said about power in his book Economy and Society: “Every form of domination implies a minimum of voluntary compliance.”
A good example of this sentiment is in the classroom. Imagine that a class of thirty students gets together and decides that they are not going to take any exams. They are interested in learning the material of the course, but they do not want to put themselves through the stress and anxiety of taking exams. They tell the teacher that they have decided collectively that they are not going to take any exams. What can the teacher do? Fail them all? Probably not, because that would likely get the teacher in a lot of trouble.
In this example, the students are exerting their interdependent power and changing the structure of the course. But in reality, achieving this solidarity is difficult, and that is why interdependent power is often not realized. One of our roles as sociologists, as Piven suggests at the end of her presidential address, is to foster interdependent power by showing others the ways in which we are interconnected and by promoting the idea that there is strength in numbers.
Piven’s argument echoed the words of one of the most famous sociologists of all time: Martin Luther King (he received his B.A. in sociology from Morehouse College in 1948). In A Christmas Sermon on Peace, which he delivered in 1967, King spoke eloquently about the importance of understanding interdependence: “All life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality. This is the way our universe is structured, this is its interrelated quality. We aren't going to have peace on earth until we recognize this basic fact of the interrelated structure of all reality.”
So as you enjoy the fireworks, parades and barbecues in honor of our nation’s independence you may want to also take some time to think of all the ways in which we are interconnected. Better yet, take a page out of Hayley’s book and wish your family and friends a Happy Interdependent Day. And when they look at you quizzically, you can use that as an opportunity to teach them this important sociological lesson.