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?

#S103UOW16 #Tut4

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

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