If It’s Hard To Change, Hardly Anyone Will

Want to change the world? Even in a small way? Well if you do, then you need to pay attention to what sociologists call the social organization of daily life. In this post Nathan Palmer describes where his health and the social organization of daily life collide.

I woke up at 4am yesterday and couldn’t hear. Slowly coming into consciousness, it felt like I was submerged in water. I knew this day would come after I got diagnosed last fall, “but… not now. Not so soon,” I told myself. A train of no’s started to ricochet around my head starting slowly at first and then building to a frenzy. “No… no… no, no, oh no. Oh god. Please no. Please, I’m sorry!”

My hand shot from my side, “April, I can’t hear.” I whisper-screamed to my wife. “What!?!” she yelped, shooting up from the bed. I heard her voice clearly in my left ear, but only my left. I described what it felt like and we held hands. Then I laid my head on her chest. Wincing my eyes shut I asked the universe for help.

About a year ago I was diagnosed with an inner ear disease that could wind up causing me to lose my hearing. Along with medication, my doctor told me to go on a low salt diet immediately, but for the most part I haven’t. Waking up in a cold sweat partially deaf might get me back on the low salt diet bandwagon…. maybe.

Before I was done with my coffee my hearing came back. I’m no doctor, so I can’t tell you if what I experienced is common or if it all was just a psychosomatic mess that I created in my head. However, I am a sociologist so I can tell you how my experience illustrates another reason creating social change is hard.

The Social Organization of Daily Life

It’s not a coincidence that so many of us eat fast food, own cell phones, and use child/elder care to take care of our loved ones, etc. The way we structure our society has a profound impact on what we do everyday, what we feel we need, and how we treat one another. By structure I mean the affect social institutions like the economy, government, family, religion, the education system, etc. have on us. Today many families feel pressured to have two incomes, which means that we spend less time at home, which means we need economic solutions to fill the void (e.g. fast food, cell phones, childcare, etc.). While each of us makes our choices individually, the options we have to chose from often come from outside of ourselves (i.e. from institutions/social structures). In addition many of the constraints and motivations that guide our decisions similarly stem from out social structures.

If It’s Hard To Change, Hardly Anyone Will

When designing social movements, social change campaigns, or other types of interventions we have to keep the social organization of daily life in mind. All of us have a finite amount of time, energy, and money. If the change that you are hoping to inspire others to make requires them to spend a great deal of any of these, it’s less likely that anyone will.

Let’s say you wanted to promote recycling on your campus. If you put a giant recycle collection spot a block off campus and asked everyone to lug their sack of recyclables there every day, it’s really unlikely that anyone is going to comply. However, if you put a recycle bin next to every trash can, then everyone is only a flick of the wrist away from recycling. This requires almost no additional effort and makes it far more likely that people will participate.

Even with my health and hearing on the line, I don’t avoid salt like I should. It’s hard for me to eat a low salt diet, especially if I’m away from home. Even at home almost all processed food has far too much salt for me to eat.[1] However, I have stopped pouring salt on my food and I avoid high salt foods like chips. Put another way, I’ve changed the things that fit easily with how my daily life was socially organized.

Dig Deeper:

  1. What changes have you tried to make that didn’t fit well with the social organization of daily life? Hint: think of New Years resolutions from years past.
  2. Do you think the author of this post is a rational person? Wouldn’t a rational person do what’s in their best interest (i.e. eat a low salt diet to save their health/hearing)? Explain your answer.
  3. A recent study found that 27.3% of Melanoma (i.e. skin cancer) survivors never where sunscreen. You heard that right, one study found that over 1/4 of the people who survived skin cancer never use sunscreen. How can we use the idea of the social organization of daily life to explain this seemingly irrational behavior?
  4. Pick a topic that is a social issue/problem at your school. How could you design an intervention or campaign that would promote change in ways that would mesh well with the social organization of everyday life? Pick a issue/problem that wasn’t discussed in the post.

  1. Low sodium guidelines recommend less than 140 mg of salt per serving of any food and 1,500 miligrams of sodium per day. Now go grab a package of your favorite snack and see how much salt’s in those.  ↩