June 06, 2014

Sociological Advice for Graduates

Peter_kaufmanBy Peter Kaufman

"Social theory is a basic survival skill.”

This quote comes from the first sentence of Charles Lemert’s book, Social Theory: The Multicultural, Global, and Classic Readings. My guess is that in the thousands of commencement speeches that are given at this time of year, few, if any, invoke sociological theory as a guiding light for recent grads. Nevertheless, Lemert is correct: sociological theory does provide sound advice for those about to embark on the next chapter of their lives. Here, then, are four sociologically-inspired guiding principles to pass along to your favorite graduates:

Photo courtesy of the author

1.  The world is created by people just like you

One of the most basic premises of sociological theory is that reality is socially constructed. Although each of us is born into a pre-existing world of social structures, social institutions, and social realities, all of these things were created and are recreated by individuals like you and me. As Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann state in their classic book, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise on the Sociology of Knowledge, the social world “is a human product, or, more precisely, an ongoing human production.”

For those who embrace this perspective, the social construction of reality may seem obvious and even commonsensical. However, this idea is not commonly taught or conveyed and we should not assume that it is widely accepted. For many folks, the world is an unquestioned natural--not social--reality; it just “is the way it is,” and there is nothing we can do about it. This attitude is often invoked with regard to social inequalities such as sexism and racism. Many people throw their hands up and explain these things as human nature or part of the natural order of things.

When we fail to recognize that reality is socially created, we accept the status quo even if we know that things are not as good as they could be. Moreover, in failing to recognize the social construction of reality, we don’t realize that each of us is partially responsible for re-creating this imperfect world through our interactions and behaviors. By knowing that the world is created by people like us, we are empowered to harness our energies and work for a world that is more to our liking instead of settling for one that is full of warts and blemishes.

2. Change is inevitable but it is not automatic

If we know that the world is socially constructed and that we can work toward creating new and better realities, then it should be obvious that change is possible. In truth, change is inevitable, but it still requires human effort to transpire. If everyone stopped interacting and we somehow lived in our own self-sufficient bubbles, then the social world would become static and eventually would wither away. Of course this is not feasible and we know that social interactions, just like social change, are inexorable.  The sociologist Zygmut Bauman captures the essence of this ever-changing reality by using the term liquid, in contrast to solid, to signify the rapidly altering forms of social life.

The great insight that we may gain from this second bit of advice is that we have the power to shape the form and substance of changes that occur. If we know change is omnipresent, then the challenge for each one of us to, in the words of Gandhi, “be the change we wish to see in the world.”  Whether we are recent graduates or not, it should be exciting to know that each day brings us the possibilities of shaping the social world in some small, or maybe not so small, manner. As I wrote about a few years ago, we are all “everyday activists” with the potential to do social change instead of having it done to us.

3. You have the capability to act otherwise

The first two points lead logically to this third point: Each of us has agency. Agency is a key concept in sociology and it is used to explain the extent to which individuals have the capability to act. Much like the potential obviousness of the first two points, it may not seem like much of a revelation to say that we all engage in action. What else would we do? That is a fair point; however, I would argue that a more perceptive question is: how often do we actually assert our agency? We like to think that we are each unique individuals acting in such a way to please only ourselves. In reality, we mostly conform to the norms of the social group and the larger social order.

Recognizing that we have agency is only half of the equation. The ability or willingness to assert our agency is often a more difficult task. Anthony Giddens is one of the leading sociologists to write about agency and one of his main points about it is that we could always act otherwise. We don’t have to follow the established norms, we don’t have to replicate the status quo, and we don’t have to give in to peer or parental pressure. All of this is easier said than done, but sociology reminds us that we do have the capability to act differently and embark on a path of possibility instead of a path of predictability.

   4. Two I’s are better than one

Although this fourth point has an obvious visual connotation, it is more about perspective than eyesight. The two “I’s” being referred to here are interdependence and intersectionality, and the one “I” that they are better than is individualism. Interdependence and intersectionality are not always spoken about in the same context but there is a definitely a mutuality between them. Interdependence suggests the extent to which we all rely on each other and are interconnected. Seeing the world through the lens of interdependence allows us to identify the larger web of forces that influence and make possible our daily lives.

Intersectionality, a complex term that evolved from feminist theory and was made prominent by sociologist Patricia Hill Collins, suggests the need to see social inequality from multiple positions such as gender, race, sexual orientation, ability, religion, age, etc. Instead of focusing on just one of these axes such as sexism, the theory of intersectionality implores us to understand how multiple variables interplay and shape our daily experiences. An intersectional perspective gives us a more complete comprehension of the dynamics of social inequality and helps us grasp how the agency of some individuals (poor women of color, for instance) may be constrained while for others (wealthy white men) it may be enabled.

So what is the connection between interdependence and intersectionality, and how do they trump individualism? There is no denying that in much of the Western world individualism reigns supreme. The ethos of capitalism and competition pit many of us against one another in daily battles where the ends are often thought to justify the means. This form of rampant individualism is antithetical to the ethos of interdependence, and the individualists who embrace it would scoff at any suggestion that we acknowledge our intersectionalities.

One way to negate the pull of individualism is to recognize our interdependence with others. And one way to recognize our interdependence with others is to acknowledge that our various social positions influence our lives in potentially unequal ways. To move away from the ego-driven, me-first reality of individualism, we must acknowledge that everyone depends on everyone else; however, we must also acknowledge that because of the interplay of various social categories, not everyone has the same capabilities (or agency). Ultimately, by focusing on the two “I’s” of interdependence and intersectionality instead of the one “I” of individualism, we cultivate cooperation, compassion, and empathy, instead of competition, callousness, and egotism.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, over 3 million students will graduate from high school this year and over 4 million students will graduate from some form of higher education.  That’s a lot of caps and gowns! I imagine that most of these students will not be hearing a commencement speech extolling the virtues of sociology as a basic survival skill. But if you or someone you know is a recent graduate, hopefully these four points will be useful as you begin a new stage in your life. At the very least, rejoice in your accomplishments and enjoy the journey ahead!   


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