Is mind superior to body and emotion?

We have long conceived of a separation between mind and body in western society, with supremacy of mind over body. This basic idea that reason should dominate is captured in the classic statement by Descartes ‘cogito ergo sum’, ‘I think, therefore I am’. However, if your thoughts are affected by your bodily feelings, or even your perceptions of how the society around you sees you, then what are you? What are your thoughts? Are they really separate from your body and your feelings? And do we have a better understanding of the relationship between reason and emotion as a society today? Compare Disney’s take on the role of emotions in human action in 1943 and in 2015 (and note that the producers of the 2015 ‘Inside Out’ film considered including ‘logic’ as an emotion, but later decided to drop it). Which of these depictions makes more sense to you?

#S327UOW16 #Tut2

How do you rate your chances of a good life in this society?

How do you rate your chances of a good life in this society? You might think that you can do anything in life if you work hard enough, and there’s a good chance that you can (you made it to university after all!) However, have you considered how the structures of our society might enable or constrain your chances? Or those of the people around you? Social structures include norms of culture, gender, race, class, ethnicity, age; policies and legal frameworks; and the operation of big, bureaucratic institutions like the government and corporations, and big systems like global political, financial, and technological systems and networks. We call these things structures because they are quite solid (they persist over time), they work in fairly systematic (structured) ways, and because they ‘structure’ our lives. They constrain what we can do, and they shape who we become.

Take a few examples. In Australia, the way that family, care and work life is structured means that full-time working women on average earn 17.9% (or $284 per week) less than similar men, and the way that indigenous health, education, housing and government support are structured mean that even in 2015, non-indigenous people are likely to live ten years longer than indigenous people. Internationally, the way colonial history and modern global finance are structured mean that the richest 1% of people in the world receive 14% of its income, while the poorest 20% receive 1% of its income. This is not just a failure of government policy. Social structures incorporate social, cultural, political and economic aspects that entrench inequalities over time and space.

The recent best-selling ‘Capital in the Twenty First Century’ by Thomas Pickety argues that rising inequality both between and within countries is inevitable in modern capitalist society. Labor MP and former Economics Professor Andrew Leigh points out that Australia has certainly seen inequality rising again, after falling in the post-war period, and research released last week by UOW economists shows that inter-generational mobility in Australia is not nearly as good as we thought it was. Inequality and the division between rich and poor seems to be a core structural feature of modern societies and economies – something pointed out by Karl Marx over 150 years ago – and it means that you are likely to prosper more quickly if you are born with resources, and less quickly (or not at all) if you are not.

So how will these social structures affect you? How will they affect others? What can you do as an individual to change them? What can we do together, collectively, to change them? Can we shape the structures of our society to serve us instead of the market, or instead of the entrenched interests of the powers that be?

#S103UOW16 #Tut2

The social experience of bodies and feelings

How do you feel? Bodies and emotions seem like the most basic and essential parts of us. You knew your body before you could talk, and your feelings before you could think. They form the core of you. How can such primal things as bodies and emotions – the greatest markers of who you are as an individual – be influenced by society?

Perhaps a few questions might help answer the question:

  • Do you have a tattoo?
  • Do you wear a dress?
  • Did you have braces?
  • How well do you throw a ball?
  • Do you tell people in your life that you love them regularly?
  • Can you restrain your anger?
  • Are you envious of anyone around you?
  • How happy are you?

Think about your answers to these questions. Were these just simple choices that you made as an individual, or skills you did or didn’t pick up at random? Or did your society shape your answers in predictable ways, based on your sex, age, race, education, wealth, health, and social class background? How has society shaped your body, and the way you display and use it? How has society shaped your feelings, their expression, and how you manage them?

#S327UOW16 #Tut1

Can you imagine society?

Can you imagine society? Some people can’t. The British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once famously said: “There is no such thing as society.” Do you think this is true? I suspect not, or you wouldn’t be studying sociology. However, it’s not enough just to take the counter position that ‘of course there is a society,’ but then leave this thing ‘society’ unexamined. There is more to understanding society than simply recognising that it exists.

C Wright Mills said in the Sociological Imagination that: “Neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both.” What did he mean by this? The idea of an individual makes sense. You are one. The idea of a society usually makes sense as well. It’s out there, all around you. But the understanding the interaction between the two can be tricky. It takes observation, and consideration – and imagination.

Can you imagine society all around you? The many forms it takes, and the various influences that it has on you? Can you see it operating in the way you interact with your friends and family, the way you study, the way you work, the way you love and care for others, in the very way you see yourself as a particular sex, race, class, nationality, or religion? Are social influences intuitive to you? Are they intuitive to others? If not, why not? And is society different from the other ‘big things’ in life that shape you and so much of what you do with your life – the economy, the political system, our culture. Is it just an amalgam of these things? Or is it more – or something else entirely?

#S103UOW16 #Tut1