“Why is it so important to know how society affects us?”

That is a question Daysha R. Lawrence got from a student. That’s a good question. I’ll try to answer it and I hope my fellow socbloggers will give it a shot as well.

1. Because these social influences are real. They are complex and they do affect us in many different ways. They are part of the architecture of our lives. Here is how I summarized it for my students (and yes, you can nitpick, I should have put a few more arrows but I did not want to overload the diagram):

Social Structure

Dealing with reality means dealing with social determinants of behavior. To not see this is to miss both the forest and the trees.

2. To be human is to be social. The social is like the air we breathe. It is all around us. It goes largely unquestioned because it feels natural to us. To ask why it is important to understand how society affects us is equivalent to asking why it is important to understand biological / chemical / physical processes. And yet, no student would ever ask such a question to a natural sciences professor. Why?

3. Because there is in the American culture, an anti-social bias, that is, a rejection of sociological explanations. Individualism prevails as cultural value and ideological construct that keeps an entire slice of social reality (the diagram above) hidden from view and excluded from discussion. But again, it is real nonetheless. And there is a significant body of research to show its profound influence on who we are, what we achieve, the opportunities available to us.

4. To not understand the significance of social processes is to live one’s life blind. To subscribe to an individualistic framework and explain everything by individual traits is to limit oneself to the stick figure above and to ignore all the other layers. Ignorance is not bliss, it is harmful and it undermines democracy, civic engagement and is ultimately detrimental to society as a whole. Think of it this way: 30 years of non-sociologically informed criminal justice policy have turned the American criminal justice system into a bloated, costly, ineffective, racist / classist, behemoth with not much to show for it, except enrichment of a few private firms, and the moral satisfaction of being “tough on crime.”

5. To understand the different layers of social determination also helps us understand that systems, institutions and processes are not neutral. There is nothing natural about the economy, polity or any other institutions. They are the product of decisions made by powerful groups of people, with the capacity to shape society as a whole, to the detriment of a lot of other people. Would you agree to play a game if you knew that other players had an unfair advantage or were cheaters AND had written the rules of the game to their advantage? You would probably demand some change in the way the game is played. But you cannot make such demand unless you understand how the game is fixed in the first place.

6. The extension of this is that in order to be a competent player, wouldn’t you want to see the entire game and understand the entire set of rules? And wouldn’t it be interesting to be able to tell, when you are watching the news, whether you are being told the complete story, or when there is more that is not told to you? As the citizen of a democracy, wouldn’t it be essential to you to be able to evaluate social policy in order to be an informed voter?

7. Heck, it just makes one less stupid.

And so, sociology is the discipline best equipped for the job because (1) it covers every domain of social activity. There is no type of human activity that has not been studied by sociology, as opposed to other social sciences that tend to have a narrower scope of analysis. (2) In addition to a diversity of topics, sociology employs a diversity of methodologies to capture all these different layers of social determination and shed light as to how they work and how they impact groups and individuals in different ways.

And the very fact that a student has asked such a question is a reflection of the fact that sociology disrupts our usual way of thinking or rather our usual of NOT thinking about certain issues. Well, being taken out of one’s comfort zone is the goal of education. I would argue that a course that does not do that is a waste.

2 thoughts on ““Why is it so important to know how society affects us?”

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