December 25, 2017

How Sociology Can Save the World

Peter kaufman 2014By Peter Kaufman

The title of this post comes from the name of a Lifelong Learning Institute class I taught recently. Lifelong Learning Institutes exit throughout the United States offering non-credit courses for adults 55 years and older. The class I volunteered to teach met once a week for four weeks. Here was the description of the course:

How Sociology Can Save the World: Let's face it: The world is pretty screwed up! The gap between the haves and the have-nots is skyrocketing, the earth is imperiled by human-caused climate change, and various acts of intolerance seem to be on the rise in many countries. Although there is no quick and easy remedy to all of the world's ills, we can take steps individually and collectively to get us back on track. In this class we will consider four sociological concepts that, if they were more widely understood and applied, could address many of the problems that threaten our collective existence. Each week, short readings that center around one of the four sociological concepts will be assigned.

The themes we studied in these four weeks were: the sociological imagination, reflexivity, interdependence, and intersectionality. These topics have been covered in many previous blog posts so I will just briefly explain the main points that we discussed with each.                  

The Sociological Imagination. For the first day of class, students read a very short excerpt from “The Promise,” the opening chapter of C. Wright Mills’s classic book. This reading familiarized them with the important and well-known concepts of biography and history, and personal troubles versus public issues.

Kaufman class
Photo courtesy of the author and class participants

Reflexivity. In week two, we discussed the importance of being able to step back, recognize the lenses through which we view the world, and walk in the shoes of others. This lesson built on the previous class because in order to recognize our own biases and taken-for-granted assumptions, it is necessary that we understand how our biographies and histories have shaped our worldview.

Interdependence. In our penultimate class, we considered the basic fact that social life requires the cooperation of all. Like it or not, we all need and depend on each other as well as other living organisms to survive. From this basic premise, we discussed some key points from Frances Fox Piven’s theory of interdependent power. We grappled with the possibility of people coming together and leveraging their collective power, with the stark reality that the cultivation of such solidarity is a challenging task.

Intersectionality. For the final class, students read Kimberlé Crenshaw’s “Why Interesectionality Can’t Wait.” This short essay gave them a basic introduction to “a way of thinking about identity and its relationship to power.” Intersectionality can be a challenging concept to grasp in 75 minutes but these students were up to the task. They were able to understand how social positions such as race, gender, social class, ability, and religion interact in ways that may be constraining for some individuals and enabling for others.

If it seems as if this was a lot to cover in just four sessions you are correct, it was! We might normally spend a few days, or even an entire semester, studying some of these concepts. To cover each of these four ideas in just 75 minutes was challenging—for both teacher and students.

One of the most gratifying aspects of teaching this course was listening to and learning from these students. As you can imagine they brought a tremendous amount of wisdom to class. Each week, they tapped into this wisdom and were able to apply what we were discussing to a multitude of experiences in their long and rich lives.

After such a whirlwind introduction to sociology I was curious what the students thought of the title of the course. In the words of C. Wright Mills, I wanted to know what they thought of the task and promise of sociology. So I asked them to offer a quick response to this question:

After these four classes in which we discussed the sociological imagination, reflexivity, interdependence, and intersectionality, what do you think: Can sociology save the world?

         Here are their responses:

  • If there’s any hope of saving the world, understanding and living these concepts can certainly help. The more people are understanding, compassionate and aware of each other, the better the world can be. Awareness of these sociological ideas can help people understand that “We’re all in this together.”
  • Sociology could change the world if each individual, as we learn about the four items, could radiate these concepts out to a few others and from there eventually all would change. What a wonderful concept if only this were possible!
  • I hope so. It teaches us to see others, the world, and ourselves differently. Maybe it will help us to work better together.
  • It is challenging to get people to discuss issues rather than react to statements that are inaccurate and incendiary. With patience and persistence I believe it can be done.
  • I believe it can give us the tools to begin dissecting the rigidness and walls between us—that is, our fixed opinions which are our prisons. Once we break down these defenses, we can start to really “walk in another’s shoes” through listening and dialogue.
  • Yes, if we listen to each other and think about what the other person is saying. Practice empathy and understanding. It has to start with each of us. Teach our children and grandchildren to do the same.
  • Only if people stop and listen and are willing to reflect, and maybe change their thinking. Many are so linear in thinking. It would be a great challenge – but worth saving the world.
  • Yes, if we can apply some of the knowledge of our own common humanity with others. Each of us, in our own small way, can make a difference.
  • A basic need between all people everywhere is the willingness and ability to listen to each other with respect and tolerance. We’ll never all agree on everything all the time, but even small agreements can be built on. The scope of the problem is huge, but the groundwork begins with individuals working together.
  • Yes, slowly. Remember the 60s? Our world seemed broken. We “get through things.”
  • Yes, to listen and to observe those around us to see the problems and concerns. Try to accept all people to bring some peace into this world.
  • Conceptually it all makes sense; however, it assumes that people are willing to listen. I do believe we can make a difference; however, there will always be an element that will be in opposition. There will always be people of influence who have a thirst for power and control who will use whatever they can to manipulate the masses.
  • No, I think sociology concepts become part of the culture and get distorted, misused, or overused and there is reaction against them.

With the exception or one or two answers, there is a lot of hope and potential here. It is encouraging to read these responses because these students felt this way after just four 75-minute classes. In just 5 hours of learning about sociology they already began to grasp the impact these theories and concepts might have if they were more widely understood and embraced.

As students and teachers of sociology it is up to us to share these ideas with others. Our audiences may not be as receptive to sociological ideas as this class of self-selected and motivated learners. But if we believe in the task and promise of sociology then we must continue to broadcast our disciplinary knowledge as far and wide as possible. If we do that then sociology may one day save the world.

Comments

Thank you for the article. New learning for me through others experience.

Save the World is quite a strong statement :)
In regards to the specific problems mentioned though (environmental degradation, economic inequality, intolerance) I have some hope.

Love this post as it relates to a big part of what draws me to Sociology.

Great work!

Very informative and useful article. Warming regards!

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