Place, the Sociological Imagination, and Western Pennsylvania
When I first read C. Wright Mills’ “The Promise” as an undergraduate, I remember being struck by his argument that the “first fruit” of the sociological imagination “is the idea that the individual can understand his own experience and gauge his own fate only be locating himself within his period, that he can know his own chances in life only by becoming aware of those of all individuals in his circumstances.” For Mills, understanding a person’s social context, or what he calls the structure of society, is essential for understanding their life chances.
This quote from Mills struck me because, while I was just beginning to understand the concept of the sociological imagination, I already possessed an interest in how social context shapes people’s lives.
I had grown up in rural western Pennsylvania, in between the small university town of Slippery Rock and the county seat of Butler. I was a student in the Slippery Rock school district, while my dad worked at Armco Steel (now AK Steel) in Butler, and I already understood that in many ways this place was a particular social context shaping my perspective and opportunities.
On this blog, several contributors have written about the ways in which place matters in social life. Where we live can shape access to green spaces, or to abortion access. We use symbols of our places to express ideas of our place’s identity, or changing identity. The place we are living in shapes who we meet, where we work, what we eat, and what interests we pursue.
Urban and rural sociologists focus directly on how place shapes social lives. Thomas Gieryn argues that “sociologists have a stake in place no matter what they analyze, or how.” Ann Tickamyer also suggests that a comprehensive understanding of social inequality must focus on spatial inequality, stating “Different settings create and reproduce social hierarchies and inequalities, reinforce or undermine ideologies, and enable and promote some practices over others.”
One way in which my geographic context mattered was in how I thought about jobs and opportunities. When my dad began working at the mill, long before I was born, they had about 5,000 employees. By the time he retired, this number had dropped substantially, and the mill was employing about 1,000 workers. Like many other towns in what is referred to as the rust belt, automation and deindustrialization reduced jobs and changed the town’s social fabric. Driving through town with my dad, he would point out all the ways in which Butler seemed to be changing as employment at the mill dropped.
My geographic context also affected my experiences in school, especially because I was exposed to professionals who worked in higher education. I was the first person in my family to graduate from college. When I was younger, my mother would encourage me to be a lawyer, doctor, or engineer, but my family did not know any lawyers, doctors, or engineers socially. But, because my school system is in the same town as the university, I regularly met college students, professors, and other professionals who worked there, including many of my classmates’ parents. This made me more comfortable with the idea of going to college, and also encouraged me to think about the possibility of becoming a professor one day.
Growing up in this area, I noticed that I was surrounded almost exclusively by people who looked and acted like me. Slippery Rock and Butler have relatively low racial and ethnic diversity, and traditional gender roles occupied much of the local culture I experienced growing up. So, I could see how my identity as a straight white male privileged my social standing.
Around the 2016 presidential election, many commentators used place to explain the election results, discussing the impact of deindustrialization, population change, residential segregation, and a growing rural-urban divide. Last fall, The Boston Globe ran a story about residents of Butler seeing the American Dream fading. I think Josh Pacewicz’s work on this issue helps make sense of some of these changes seen back in western Pennsylvania.
As someone who has lived in both rural and urban places, I have reflected a lot how these places shaped my social life and how we can learn a lot when we make place an important component of our sociological imaginations.
This fall I will teach a newly developed course on spatial inequality to explore these issues in a deeper way. We will read Arlie Russell Hochschild’s recent book on her study of predominantly white, rural Louisiana, Strangers in Their Own Land and William Julius Wilson’s near-classic on predominantly black, jobless, urban neighborhoods, When Work Disappears. The idea is that, while we may think of the places from which these books emerged as very different, they may have surprising things in common. By studying them together, we can learn a lot about the role of place in shaping social lives.
How about you? How do you feel where you have come from has shaped your social life? Is place an important component of your sociological imagination?