December 31, 2013

Sociological New Year’s Resolutions for 2014

Peter_kaufmanBy Peter Kaufman

Two years ago, I wrote a post, Sociological New Year’s Resolutions, in which I outlined five resolutions that were specifically sociological. Instead of focusing on actions and behaviors that will affect the person making the resolutions, my list included things that would provide societal benefits. I was hoping to make this list of sociological New Year’s resolutions an annual tradition. Unfortunately, I never got around to writing a 2013 version so for now we’ll have to think of this list as a biennial affair.

For the 2014 version, I decided to take both a traditional and sociological approach. Traditionally, New Year’s resolutions are often focused on individuals making promises to take some personal action. Typical resolutions include: start exercising, lose weight, quit smoking, stop eating junk food, and get a better job. To make these resolutions more sociological, I have pulled out these action words—start, lose, quit, stop, and get—and combined them with sociology to come up with the following five sociological New Year’s Resolutions for 2014:

1. Start reading The Sociological Imagination. The “sociological imagination” is arguably the most commonly invoked phrase in our discipline. In classrooms, at conferences, and among colleagues, sociologists are constantly referring to this concept. When someone does utter these words they are implicitly harkening back to C. Wright Mills’s classic book of the same name. When I hear people talk about having the sociological imagination or instilling this perspective in students, I always wonder if the person speaking has actually read the book. After all, it was written over fifty years ago and is probably not as widely read as it once was. So if you are among those who have never opened this book, what better way to start the New Year than to finally sit down and familiarize yourself with this discipline-defining text?

Keep in mind this resolution is to just start reading book. I am not asking anyone to make a guarantee that they will finish it (although I do think it is worth reading the whole book—including the very useful appendix “On Intellectual Craftsmanship”). As long as you start reading the book, you most likely will be exposed to the key terms that are often summoned in discussing the sociological imagination—biography and history, and personal troubles and public issues. These concepts appear in the famous first chapter, “The Promise,” so by making a good-faith effort to read the book you will at least be able to throw these terms around without any worry about being a complete poser.

2. Lose your biases and prejudices. This resolution is not too far from the traditional resolution from which it derives. People often vow to lose weight in the New Year; similarly, our biases and prejudices are like extra weight or baggage that deserves to be shed. Much like unnecessary physical weight, our biases and prejudices adversely affect our ability to move through the world in a healthy and fluid manner. When we are carrying around biases and prejudices, even ones we may not overtly recognize, our interactions may be strained, our perceptions may be faulty, and our behaviors may be misguided. By working actively to lose these negative preconceptions, we free ourselves to see the full potential of others and consequently, the full potential of ourselves.   

I wrote about this idea in my original list of sociological resolutions but it’s an important enough idea that it bears repeating. As I suggested two years ago, the challenge is to first recognize that we have biases and prejudices. Sally Raskoff recently wrote a post about reducing bias and prejudice that might be helpful. The Greater Good Science Center also has a list of 10 Strategies for Reducing Prejudice. Finally, I find the Teaching Tolerance website particularly useful for finding activities and essays that point to ways one may reduce prejudice. Sources like these are good places to start working on this resolution.   

3. Quit complaining and start doing something. We all know people who are constantly complaining about the world’s state of affairs. And make no mistake about, from a sociological perspective there are many things to complain about: rising inequality, persistent forms of discrimination (racism, sexism, and homophobia), test-based curricula, environmental degradation, and global poverty, to name just a few things worth protesting. Despite the varied nature of these problems, they all have one thing in common (besides the fact that many of us complain about them): they are not going to get better unless we work toward solutions.

For anyone who has complained about any of these or similar social issues there is only one reliable antidote: start doing something. What can you do? Plenty! You can join or start a group on your campus or in your community, volunteer with an organization or service agency, write letters to or articles for your local newspaper, visit or call your elected officials, educate and motivate others, build coalitions, run for office, or explore the “take action” links on the websites of non-profit organizations. In short, use your agency so that your voice is not just heard through complaints but through actions.

4. Stop believing everything you see, hear, or read. Much like the traditional resolution to stop eating junk food this sociological version is proposing that we stop consuming junk information. Whether we are talking about poisoning our bodies with nutritionally devoid foods comprised of fats and sugars, or poisoning our minds with information that is bereft of facts and truths, the effects are the same. Junk food compromises our physical (and mental) well-being while junk news compromises our intellectual judgment.

What makes it difficult to achieve either of these resolutions are the lack of healthy alternatives and our inability to discern between good and bad choices. Just as it is often difficult to find healthy food sources—especially when we are out and about (shopping, travelling, going to the movies)—it is difficult to find legitimate news sources. As sociologist Barry Glassner demonstrates in his book, The Culture of Fear, there is so much misinformation swirling around that many of us are afraid of the wrong things. This point is also made by another sociologist, Joel Best, in his book Damned Lies and Statistics. Best details how our statistical illiteracy results in us accepting things that are categorically untrue. A large part of being sociologically aware is realizing when we are consuming junk information so that we do not blindly believe everything we see, hear, or read.

5. Get better informed about current events. If you are wondering if this resolution applies to you, I suggest you take the Pew Research Center News IQ Quiz or CNN’s “Ignorance” Test. Many of us probably don’t need to be embarrassed by an online exam to demonstrate that we know very little about what’s going on in the world. The fact that most Americans know more about Miley Cyrus than they do about Bashar al-Assad  (President of Syria) or that most of us know the difference between Disneyland and Disney World but we can’t decipher between Iraq and  Iran is not particularly assuring.

If you are wondering why you should know about current events just refer to resolution number 1. In the first chapter of The Sociological Imagination Mills argues that to have this perspective requires that one asks questions such as: What is structure of the society (or world) in which we live? What is the place of this society in the framework of the larger whole? What types of individuals exist in the world and in what ways are they enabled or constrained? Asking these questions will actually compel us to become better informed about current events—a point that Mills also recognized: “By means of the sociological imagination [individuals will] grasp what is going on in the world.”

 According to some estimates, nearly 40% of Americans make New Year’s resolutions but only 8% of us end up keeping them (of course, following resolution number 4, I would want to investigate where these statistics came from). Apparently, the key to keeping resolutions is to keep them simple, be realistic about the goals you set, and have faith in yourself that you will accomplish them. I don’t think the sociological resolutions listed here are too difficult to achieve especially if you are already sociological inclined. But if March or April rolls around and, like most Americans, these resolutions are in your rear-view mirror, don’t despair. Like most resolutions, these are not going anywhere and you can start them at any time of the year.

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