March 06, 2023

What is a Good Member of Society?

Author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

I never really thought about this question until reading a recent Pew Research Center report. While we might have a good idea of what it takes to be a good student (go to class, do all readings and assignments), a good parent (provide for a child’s physical and emotional wellbeing as best you can), and a good friend (spend time together, listen to one another, be supportive), there aren’t really obvious answers to being a good member of society.

That alone is telling. In a society marked by individualism, or the notion that we are separate rather than interdependent, we might focus more on how to be a good person or on our interpersonal relationships, but seldom on how to be a good member of the larger whole. Even as a sociologist, I seldom think about what makes someone a good member of society.

In my role as a professor, I spend a great deal of time thinking about and sharing how to be a good student—most notably in the syllabus and some videos I share with students—and I occasionally provide tips while mentoring colleagues on how to be good instructors. I sometimes share ideas on how to be a good relationship partner (but only when asked) and have had conversations with family members about what makes a good adult child to aging parents. But being a good member of society isn’t something most of us often think much about.

The Pew Research Center results are interesting. They surveyed nearly 21,000 people in nineteen wealthy nations during the first half of 2022. The top response globally was voting in elections (73 percent rated this as very important), followed by reducing climate change (63 percent), and then getting a COVID vaccine (57 percent).

The results, of course, varied by country. While 42 percent of Americans said reducing climate change was very important, this number was lower than all but two other nations; three countries rated this as the most important aspect of being a good citizen (Spain, 77 percent, Italy 76 percent, and Belgium 64 percent).

Even within the same countries, there are disagreements based on age (older people tend to view voting as more important), gender (women are more likely to view climate change as more important than men), and political affiliation (those who identify as conservative are more likely to view religious attendance as very important to good citizenship).

So while we might not reach a consensus about what it means to be a good citizen, just as we might disagree about what being a good child, parent, romantic partner, or colleague means, we can at least start thinking about it.

Some of the other good citizenship items in the Pew study included staying current on domestic politics (37 percent of Americans rated this as very important) and international politics (22 percent) and participating in public demonstrations (13 percent).

While these are just a few possible examples of good citizenship, as I ponder this issue other things come to mind. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and might not be on everyone’s list of good citizenship, but here are a few to add:

  1. Being kind, especially to those we encounter working in retail and public-facing positions;
  2. Treating others the way we would want others to treat us;
  3. Trying to avoid reacting to others with anger when we are angry, frustrated, or upset;
  4. Providing a helping hand to someone in need and supporting organizations that do so regularly;
  5. Doing something (whether it be part of your job, a hobby, or volunteering) that contributes to improving the lives of others;
  6. Being aware of people with different life experiences and understand their perspectives (see Weber’s concept of verstehen);
  7. Considering the greater good when voting on policies and candidates (not just those that serve our personal interests);
  8. Staying home when sick if possible, and taking steps not to infect others;
  9. Picking up any trash we might leave behind, inside or outside;
  10. Reducing our trash output whenever possible, especially when things might end up in landfills;
  11. Consider the labor practices of the businesses we patronize, and try and spend our money where workers are treated fairly.

Yes, my list is mostly based on small-scale interpersonal interactions, but that doesn’t mean that small changes can’t make big differences—although it clearly reflects growing up in a society that emphasizes individualism. What’s on your list of good citizenship behaviors?


My long-term goal is to become a professor since I enjoy innovation and creative designs.

Thank you for this article because "What does it take to be considered a good member of society?' has often crossed my mind. Being the land of the free, home of the brave has always made me think that certain people think they have the right to decided how others' use their freedoms and rights, in doing so these elite society members think they are allowed to set the rules and the standards in which others who are allowed to join should act, is that freedom? I'm not sure on how to feel about this, it's controversial in my mind. I feel assured that sociology and the studies of it will help me better understand how to place my mind at ease with my thoughts on some of these matters.
Sternheimer, Karen, (March6,2023),"What is a good member of society", March15,2023, retrieved

It is critical to encourage youngsters to become productive members of society. This includes being a law-abiding citizen, giving back to your community, and being willing to work and study hard.

The top response globally was voting in elections (73 percent rated this as very important), followed by reducing climate change (63 percent), and then getting a COVID vaccine (57 percent).

USA is much more politically driven than any other country as this survey shows. Kinda surprised climate change was this low though, that's a bit alarming.

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