Can we change society? Do we have ‘social agency’?

So how do we change things? Our lives and our society? We learnt last week how there are social structures all around us, determining so much of what we do. How can we resist them, or change them? Don’t we have agency? Sure we do. Classic interactionist sociologists such as Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman, or dramaturgists such as Erving Goffman helped us understand that social life is improvised. We aren’t robots. Our lives aren’t totally determined by the big ‘social structures’ in our lives – gender, class, race etc. We joke, and laugh, and burp, and dance; we start music subcultures or pop-up cafes in old factories, carparks, or online; we cross-dress and come out as gay politicians and church ministers; we run marathons at 60, 70 and 80, or ski with a disability; we successfully manage companies as women and successfully raise children as men, we drop out of the capitalist market and make and swap our own clothes and food;we buy ethical products, and we build amazing tiny houses because the big ones have become too expensive. We improvise and play around every time we interact with others, and this gives us agency. We can change ourselves. We can change others. We can change society.

But it takes time.

Our interactions can free us, but they can also reinforce what is already there. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu observed that even our improvised habits are structured by society, and form a system of conscious and unconscious prescribed actions he called a habitus. How to say hello, whether to burp, or when to observe the etiquette of sitting at a table or driving a car; we collectively shape, reinforce and build these habitus through repeated interactions with each other. They eventually become the norms and even institutions (or structures) of our society. However, Bourdieu stresses the collectively improvised origins of these structures means that they are always at least a little bit flexible, and they can change over time.

It’s like a river flowing through a desert. A billion water droplets have no choice but to flow through the pre-existing path of the riverbed. However, over time, some of those droplets will spill this way and that, carve out new rivulets and channels, and eventually change the entire path of the river altogether. We can change society, and help each others to change it, a little bit every day – but only a little bit.

And it is important that we think and reflect on what we do. Unlike water, we have the capacity to be aware of where we flow as a human river, and to try and alter the path deliberately, adjusting for the influences and fluctuations in the social structures around us. The British sociologist Anthony Giddens describes this as reflexivity, or taking account of how society affects us in trying to change it (and ourselves), rather than ignoring or disregarding its influence. He is optimistic that this gives us the greatest agency in leading our lives and changing society.

What do you think? How much agency do you have? Can you change yourself? Can you change society?

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Posted in SOC103 - Introduction to Sociology, Tutorial 4, UOW.