In this post, Sarah Michele Ford examines the ways in which American culture and values make it challenging for sociology students to develop a “sociological perspective”.
One of the greatest challenges for the introductory sociology student is learning to approach questions from a societal, not an individual, perspective. In fact, American culture has stacked the deck against the easy development of a sociological perspective. Most American students are indoctrinated into the dominant American values of individualism and hard work long before we are ever exposed to the field of sociology, and in many ways those values are antithetical to a sociological perspective.
We see this disconnect most often when we consider issues of social class inequality. American culture and values teach us that the best way to achieve (or maintain) middle- or upper-class status is to work hard (and maybe get a little lucky). This attitude is often framed in terms of the 19th century American author Horatio Alger, whose books told the stories of young people starting out poor but rising to middle- or upper-class status thanks to nothing but their own efforts and perseverance. (A number of Alger’s books are available as free downloads at Project Gutenberg.)
The moral of these stories is that upward mobility is available to those who are willing to work hard. This line of thinking is also called the “myth of meritocracy”, in which “[g]etting ahead is…based on individual merit, which is generally viewed as a combination of factors including innate abilities, working hard, having the right attitude, and having high moral character and integrity” (McNamee and Miller 2004). The myth of meritocracy, you may have noticed, gives all credit for social mobility (and all blame for failure to be upwardly mobile) to the individual. A sociologist, on the other hand, approaches the question of social class status from a societal perspective – that is, they look at what systemic factors play a role both in broader patterns of social class inequality as well as in any individual’s social class status.
To better understand the differences between the individualistic and the societal explanations, let’s look at two of the factors most often associated with social class status: education and income.
An individualistic explanation of success in education will say that students who are reasonable intelligent and work hard will be rewarded with good grades, graduation from high school and admission to (and ultimately graduation from) a good college. Students who do not succeed are believed to have failed because they simply did not try hard enough.
A sociologist, on the other hand, will point out that there are numerous structural factors that can impact educational opportunity and success. Public schools, for example, are by and large funded by property taxes. This means that poor students often attend the least-well-funded schools – the ones with the largest classes, the fewest resources, and the most degraded infrastructure. Those students who do graduate from underfunded schools (on average, 15.6% fewer poor high school students graduate than do non-poor students; see Cosman and GradNation 2014) often find themselves less well prepared for college than do their more affluent peers.
Another important factor in social class and social mobility is income. An individualistic explanation of income inequality will look very much like the individualistic explanation of education. Those same people who worked hard at school will work at finding a good job, work overtime, impress their superiors and thereby are rewarded with promotions, will see their incomes increase.
The sociological perspective on income will also acknowledge the connection between education and income – this is irrefutable (see the graph of income by education, based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics). Rather than explaining those differences in terms of individual work ethics, though, the sociologist will again turn to structural explanation. Those same poor students who were disadvantaged in school will be disadvantaged when they enter the job market. Job opportunities are clearly related to the amount and type of education available, but they are also related to location (the jobs available in or near poor neighborhoods tend to be lower-paying) and social networks (through which individuals can find out about job openings as well as having friends and acquaintances recommend them to those who are offering the jobs).
The individual perspective, in other words, prevents us from seeing how social mobility is constrained by structural factors. Put more broadly, by focusing on the individual, the ideology of meritocracy makes it very hard to develop a sociological perspective. American students enter the world of sociology having been told for our whole lives that anything can be overcome if you just work hard enough. This belief is then called into question when sociology professors ask their students to think about the ways that society as a whole impacts our individual lives and the lives of everyone else around us.
- Were you socialized into the “myth of meritocracy”? How?
- When did you first become aware of structural/societal explanations for inequalities? Were these explanations easy for you to accept?
- Is there room within sociology for individualistic explanations of social class inequality?
- This post focuses on individual versus societal explanations for social class inequality. What other topics do non-sociologists explain individually that sociologists explain on a societal level?
- Cosman, Ben. 2014. The High School Graduation Rate is Great, Unless You’re Poor. The Wire. http://www.thewire.com/national/2014/04/the-high-school-graduation-rate-is-great-unless-youre-poor/361321/
- GradNation. 2014. Building A GradNation: Progress and Challenge in Ending the High School Dropout Epidemic. http://gradnation.org/resource/building-gradnation-progress-and-challenge-ending-high-school-dropout-epidemic-2014
- McNamee, Stephen J. & Robert K. Miller, Jr. 2004. “The Meritocracy Myth”. Sociation Today 2(1). http://www.ncsociology.org/sociationtoday/v21/merit.htm
- U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics. March 2014. Employment Projections. http://www.bls.gov/emp/ep_chart_001.htm