Changing the World Through Sociology

Remarks I’m making tonight at the induction ceremony for Spring Arbor’s Chapter of Alpha Kappa Delta (Sociology Honorary) AKD

We’re here to celebrate your ability to operate like sociologists. Through a series of classes, you’ve been exposed to some key ideas about how the world works. What you’ve learned is important for several reasons. First, as I was reminded at the North Central Sociological Association meetings, employers report looking for students like you. People who can understand organizational dynamics, analyze data, conduct research, and craft policy are extremely valuable (even if the employers don’t know they’re looking for sociologists). Second, it makes you more informed citizens. You have a natural interest in issues like Human Trafficking, in the dynamics of Race, or in the nature of poverty.

But I have more ambitious hopes for you. As Karl Marx put it, “philosophers have only interpreted the world…; the point, however, is to change it.” I want to briefly sketch four reasons why your sociology background puts you in position to change the world.

Sociology pays attention to how things are

Any intro to soc book will tell you about the “debunking tradition” of sociology. It usually winds up listing some common sense beliefs and showing why these aren’t so. This debunking winds up taking on various sacred cows, including a lot of assumptions we make about religion.

But there is something more significant going on that simply debunking. Sociology shows us that no matter how much we want certain things to be true or want to pretend that they are, we wind up asking hard questions: Is that really so? To use one of my favorite examples, when people quote MLK they like to go to the last paragraph of the Dream speech. But we know that MLK was a sharper critic than that. I play a sermon in CORE 400 he gave the weekend before he was killed and it could be given today. He tells the truth about our complex society and observes that issues of poverty, racism, consumerism, and militarism are all threats to our imagined future.

Consider our contemporary focus on economic inequality and racial justice. You’ve taken classes in stratification and race/ethnic relations. Those have sensitized you to real issues going on. While there may be some who like to blame the victim or offer simplistic, “common sense” solutions, you know that these problems are deeply imbedded in the fabric of society. Recent reports have shown how Baltimore residential segregation was the result of intentional policies related to industrial migration of Southern blacks. Add to that issues of suburbanization policies, educational policies, and justice policies and you get a bleak picture. But sociology starts where we are and not where we wish we were. Platitudes simply won’t get us there.

Sociology explores data patterns

From its earliest days, sociology has tried to understand dynamics of data. What can we measure and what does it mean? What data gives us the most information about how things are? Sociologists are familiar with the relevant data and are ready to share it with anyone who will listen (and those who won’t!).

Consider the issue of crime. In the face of non-stop cable news coverage about crimes that occur, police shootings (as either victims or perpetrators), or speculation about policy, sociologists know that the crime rate has been falling for a decade, that murders of and by police officers are less likely today than the were in the past. Because we pay attention to what is really happening and know how to make that data meaningful to others, we can go a long way toward correcting the political and media talking points that so dominate our policy discussions.

The use of data also calls us to pay attention to matters of central tendency. Relax, I’m not turning this into a statistics presentation. But it is important to keep our focus on what the general patterns of data suggest (statistically, we’d look at medians and modes). This is important because too much of our cable news and social media outrage machines operate by picking out an extreme isolated instance and blowing it out of proportion. Yes, there may be an isolated teacher who interferes with a student’s religious belief (probably by misapplying a school policy) but that teacher doesn’t represent public education (no matter what God’s Not Dead would have you believe). Similarly, some isolated state legislator may suggest that Christianity should be a requirement for public office, but he doesn’t reflect our broad public consensus about church and state (although the pool of legislators who say stupid things is nearly inexhaustible in this cell phone age.)

We also care about the difference between statistical and substantive significance. This is one of the challenges of research. We so much want to test our hypotheses and see what we can conclude. But not everything that passes a statistical test is equally important. And our focus on significance can sometimes keep us from adequately making sense of what’s going on. I saw an article last week about the life outcomes for children growing up in same-sex households. It concluded that the odds of bad outcomes were half again higher for them compared to children who grew up in traditional birth parent households. But the article also said that the vast majority of children do not show negative outcomes regardless of the family in which they grew up. Statistically, it’s a significant finding. However, it would be a mistake to build policy on that statistical finding.

Sociology cares about patterns of social structure

Because we pay attention, we know something about the structural dynamics that shape individual and family life decisions. There is a tendency is society to generalize from middle class orientations that simply do not work in all sectors. Some children simply do not have the choices that you had or the social supports that got you to Spring Arbor. Data is clear that students in low income, predominantly minority school have differential patterns of suspensions and dismissals, which means that even those who want to stay in school find it difficult.

While those social structures limit individual choice, it is also true that individual choices shape the ability of individuals to overcome structural limitations. Patterns of alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence, and contact with the criminal justice system limit the ability of children to thrive. One of the Baltimore books I read dealt with a young woman who had a baby while in high school and wanted her mother to care for the child. But her mother left the baby or was high while there, so she wound up quitting school. Robert Putnam’s Our Kids is full of similar stories of family dysfunction that passes along from generation to generation. The result is what he calls scissor graphs that show inequality increasing over time.

These realities are important precisely because we know that the legitimation of power makes things seem “natural”. The technical word is hegemony. Those in power get to determine what is “normal”. So the dysfunctions of families and structures remain invisible. It’s up to us to shine bright lights on what is really happening. It’s early yet, but I have the feeling that Baltimore changed everything. We can now see unless we voluntarily become blind.

Sociology addresses variables for change

In spite of all the frustration, sociology also tells us how to go about advocating for change. We see change happening around us and we have some general ideas on how to promote it.

For example, one key sociological variable is demographics. You all know that I have a keen interest in generational transitions. On a host of social policy issues, what is happening in the millennial generation is very different that what happens in the boomer generation. New thinking on religion, on social class, on race, on immigration is evident wherever you look. Not universally, but certainly on the central tendencies. And one of the realities of demographic change is that the oldest cohorts are passing from the scene. Even for us boomers, our time is coming. That means that smart sociologists spend their time understanding the rising generation.

Similarly, technology has changed the way we engage issues. Social media, for good or for ill, seems to democratize our communication. We can share videos, correct miscommunication, provide real data, and advocate for those who are powerless. We are still figuring out how to do this effectively but the future is bright. We must be smart about how we use this technology (Maybe fewer post about cats or selfies and more issues of engagement).

We close the theory class looking at three folks I call “Identity Sociologists”. They operate from the inside out. The talk of how their personal story reflects the structural dynamics and demand to be taken seriously as individuals. In doing so, they challenge the structures without denying the realities of those currently in power. We have to find a way of demonstrating compassion while for all while still working for change.

Finally, we know something about what it takes to create change. For those who have been in SFJ, you know that Sandel examines utilitarianism and its limits. As much as he and I advocate communitarianism, it is true that people will pursue their personal interests. It is useful to think about how this can motivate change. Here’s a quick example. It’s remarkable that politicians across the political landscape seem to be taking up the mantle of sentencing reform. Not because they care about mass incarceration as a necessarily moral concern but because the drain on state economies is unsustainable. The more we can help people realize that social change is to their advantage, the easier it will be.


So we know a great deal about the practicality of sociology as a means for social change. What remains is simply the political and personal will to put those tools to use. Knowing you as I’ve come to over the last few years, I am excited about the potential for what you will do as Critical Participants in the Contemporary World.

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