January 13, 2022

The Sociology of Luck   

Todd SchoepflinBy Todd Schoepflin      

“Even the losers get lucky sometimes,” sang Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. “You got lucky babe, when I found you,” they sing in another. Paul McCartney and Wings have a song titled “With a Little Luck.” Social Distortion has a song called “Bad Luck.” Daft Punk has a song “Get Lucky” featuring Pharrell Williams. The expression “lucky as sin” appears in the song “Young Man’s Game” by Fleet Foxes. In “Superstition,” the legend Stevie Wonder sings about broken glass and bad luck as he warns us not to believe in things we don’t understand. 

We say good luck to each other in everyday life. We have expressions like “Better to be lucky than good” and “See a penny pick it up, all day long you’ll have good luck.” To explain the misfortune of a loved one, we sympathetically remark: “If it wasn’t for bad luck, they’d have no luck at all.” We might explain our favorite team losing a game because “that’s the way the ball bounces,” suggesting it was a matter of bad luck, or that the opposing team won because they caught a lucky break. Luck means something to us.

I’ve been more aware of songs and expressions that mention luck since reading the article “A Sociology of Luck” by Michael Sauder, published in Sociological Theory in 2020. Luck is part of our popular culture and in our social interactions, but one place it barely exists is in sociology. In sociology, we don’t really talk about luck. For Sauder, this omission is an oversight. We can understand why luck isn’t a part of our sociological analysis. Sociology is a social science. I mean, you can’t measure luck. But it’s relevant to an understanding of our experiences and how we explain inequality.

Think of our usual narrative in American society about how individuals succeed or fail. Within our individualistic culture, we lean on the meritocratic frame. You worked hard, scrapped, hustled, and persevered. You relied on talent and ingenuity. Grit and determination made a difference. You earned, and now own, your success. Those who haven’t succeeded just need to work harder. If they don’t make it, they don’t have enough ability or work ethic.

But how accurate is it to mainly explain our fortunes and misfortunes through the frames of hard work and persistence? Sauder writes:

If sociology fails to acknowledge the importance of luck (however important we determine this importance to be) or offer luck as a framework for understanding differential outcomes, meritocratic frames stand on firmer ground (p. 200).

Why is luck excluded from sociological analysis? In sociology, we focus on structural causes of inequality and emphasize how we are shaped by our social environment. We examine the impact of our opportunities, networks, resources, and institutions. As Sauder says, “the influence of luck is at odds with the field’s emphasis on structures and institutions; the untamed randomness of luck is often seen as antithetical to the search for social patterns” (210).

But luck is a part of our social world and is worth studying. We can explore people’s perceptions of luck and how people apply the idea of luck to make sense of their everyday lives and their social world.

So, what does Sauder mean by a lucky event or occurrence? He says, “I define a lucky event or occurrence as one that involves chance, is consequential (either beneficial or harmful), and is at least partially outside the control of the person or people affected by it” (p. 195). I agree with Sauder when he says we are subject to events outside of our control that in some way shape our life experiences. For example, I agree with him when he says we have no control over a tornado that damages our home and property. And we can recognize the luck that is required by the life changing outcome of winning a big lottery.

As a personal example of luck, I can think of a time I could’ve been in a serious car accident. I was idle at a stoplight when a car came around a bend at an extremely high speed. They just missed hitting me. In my side view mirror I saw the car spin out of control and roll over. Later, I saw a news report that the person was fleeing police. Wasn’t I lucky that they didn’t hit me? In some cases it could be skilled driving that prevents a car accident, but wouldn’t it sometimes be a matter of luck?

One of my favorite points Sauder makes in the article is that those who are higher up in the social class system are more able to absorb the impact of an unlucky event. Luck has a way of revealing one’s social class position. He gives us good examples to consider. Suppose your child gets sick and the next day you lose your job. Or you fall on the ice and suffer a serious injury. For a lower income person without savings and health insurance, such events could be devastating. But they might only be temporary setbacks for those who have sufficient economic resources, health insurance, and access to good quality jobs.

Another point he makes that I appreciate is how much it matters when a person enjoys a lucky success early in their career. In other words, the timing of luck matters greatly. This was certainly the case for me.

At the beginning of my career in academia, at Niagara University, I was plugging along as an adjunct in multiple departments and then had a series of one-year teaching appointments in the Criminal Justice department. I longed for a tenure-track position in the sociology department. But it was a tiny department, with only two full-time Sociology faculty members. What were the chances that someone would leave, or retire?

And then suddenly, to my surprise, there were two openings, and I was hired for one of them. Many times, in accounting for my own situation, I’ve said “right place, right time” but when I think of it now, isn’t that just another way of saying I was lucky? Sure, I had the credentials to be considered, and I had support from colleagues and administration to get the job. But two jobs coming available at the start of my career at a place five minutes from where I grew up where my friends and family live, in a profession in which tenure-track jobs are on the decline and difficult to secure in sociology?

I’d say that’s pretty lucky. It’d be wrong for me to claim it was totally hard work and persistence that got me where I am today. My career story is one of work, help, mentorship, opportunity, and luck.

If we were to study luck, how might we do so? Sauder suggests good questions to explore. We can ask people if they see luck as an important factor in their own life and in other people’s successes and failures. Do perceptions of luck vary by employment status, or political affiliation, or type of job? Do people agree or disagree with an expression such as “you make your own luck”? Are people inclined to recognize luck as being a part of sports and other games more so than in job pursuits or other contests related to economic status? If so, why? 

Before ending, I want to say something about agency. Agency is an important idea in sociology. As Sauder points out, it is often viewed as the countervailing force to social structure. We have power and decision-making ability, and we exert influence on our social structures. We don’t want to say our behavior is completely determined by structural forces. Sauder encourages us to consider to what extent agency and luck intermingle. He writes: “Chance influences the very thoughts and actions of individuals to whom we attribute agency…Factors based on luck are interwoven with the attributes that we associate with and sometimes even define as agency” (p. 208). His point is we should think about how luck interacts with structure and agency.

Do you think the sociology of luck matters for our understanding of social class inequality? What are ways we can study luck that you can think of? Are there expressions that refer to luck, or lucky symbols, that are meaningful to you? What examples of luck can you identify from your life?

Comments

Thank you for raising this important issue. It seems to me that this is a very important question that should be taken up for discussion and carefully thought about before drawing any definite conclusions. Science is exact because we rely on facts that have an evidence base. This rule should be followed in life. I hope that it will be like that.

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