FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Our Social Structure is Rigged

“It’s structure vs. agency,” my professor said to me, as if that cleared everything up.

It didn’t. It was my first week of graduate school in sociology, and I had no idea what he was talking about.

Fast-forward three years, and I’m now teaching an intro sociology class myself, trying to explain the very same point to my students.

If you live in the U.S., you’re familiar with our social structure.

You need a college education to qualify for many better paying jobs. Your children can go to the local public school where you live, which is funded with your property taxes. You need health insurance, and our government doesn’t provide it to everyone. If you’re convicted of a felony, you can be legally discriminated against in a number of ways.

We usually assume our social structure is inevitable. It’s “just how the world is.” It feels natural. But it isn’t.

If you look throughout American history, you’ll see lots of variation and change. Racial segregation was once legal. In the 1800s, married women were banned from owning property. Same-sex marriage was, until recently, illegal. Medicare and Social Security were created in the 20th century.

Each of those changes profoundly impacts how society works. With each change, one’s “life chances” are affected. The way society works doesn’t predetermine your entire life for you, but it alters your opportunities. Each change makes it easier or harder for you to get ahead.

“Agency” refers to one’s own ability to determine one’s outcome in life.

In America, we tend to ignore social structure and focus on agency. We tell one another — and believe ourselves — that anyone who works hard can get ahead.

The flip side of that is that anyone who’s not doing well must not be working hard. If you’re poor, it’s obviously your own fault.

Sociologists debate how much social structure determines one’s success in life versus one’s own choices, work ethic, and talent. But while there’s a question of how much social structure predetermines your outcome in life, there’s no doubt that it does affect your life in a significant way.

What’s more, our society is set up to help the rich stay rich, while making it difficult for the poor to become middle class or wealthy.

For example, sending poor children to poorly funded, failing schools while sending the children of wealthier parents to excellent public schools means that, upon entering adulthood, children whose only mistake was being born to poor parents are already at a disadvantage.

Can they get ahead with hard work? Sure. But they must work a lot harder just to get to the same place that the children of privileged parents can achieve easily.

If we want a country in which it’s easier for anyone to get ahead by working hard, we must change our social structure.

Ignoring the role of social structure while focusing on “personal responsibility” and individual choices blames the most marginalized members of our society for their own failings.

Naturally, everyone plays some role in their own destiny. But pretending one is entirely responsible for every success or hardship in one’s life is simply dishonest. Our social structure is rigged against those who are already struggling. The Republican tax bill is making it more so.

We’re all playing a game that’s rigged to make our lives easier or more difficult, and it’s dishonest not to acknowledge that.

Distributed by OtherVoices.

More articles by:
April 26, 2018
Patrick Cockburn
As Trump Berates Iran, His Options are Limited
Daniel Warner
From May 1968 to May 2018: Politics and Student Strikes
Simone Chun – Kevin Martin
Diplomacy in Korea and the Hope It Inspires
George Wuerthner
The Attack on Wilderness From Environmentalists
CJ Hopkins
The League of Assad-Loving Conspiracy Theorists
Richard Schuberth
“MeToo” and the Liberation of Sex
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Sacred Assemblies in Baghdad
Dean Baker
Exonerating Bad Economic Policy for Trump’s Win
Vern Loomis
The 17 Gun Salute
Gary Leupp
What It Means When the U.S. President Conspicuously and Publicly Removes a Speck of Dandruff from the French President’s Lapel
Robby Sherwin
The Hat
April 25, 2018
Stanley L. Cohen
Selective Outrage
Dan Kovalik
The Empire Turns Its Sights on Nicaragua – Again!
Joseph Essertier
The Abductees of Japan and Korea
Ramzy Baroud
The Ghost of Herut: Einstein on Israel, 70 Years Ago
W. T. Whitney
Imprisoned FARC Leader Faces Extradition: Still No Peace in Colombia
Manuel E. Yepe
Washington’s Attack on Syria Was a Mockery of the World
John White
My Silent Pain for Toronto and the World
Dean Baker
Bad Projections: the Federal Reserve, the IMF and Unemployment
David Schultz
Why Donald Trump Should Not be Allowed to Pardon Michael Cohen, His Friends, or Family Members
Mel Gurtov
Will Abe Shinzo “Make Japan Great Again”?
Binoy Kampmark
Enoch Powell: Blood Speeches and Anniversaries
Frank Scott
Weapons and Walls
April 24, 2018
Carl Boggs
Russia and the War Party
William A. Cohn
Carnage Unleashed: the Pentagon and the AUMF
Nathan Kalman-Lamb
The Racist Culture of Canadian Hockey
María Julia Bertomeu
On Angers, Disgusts and Nauseas
Nick Pemberton
How To Buy A Seat In Congress 101
Ron Jacobs
Resisting the Military-Now More Than Ever
Paul Bentley
A Velvet Revolution Turns Bloody? Ten Dead in Toronto
Sonali Kolhatkar
The Left, Syria and Fake News
Manuel E. Yepe
The Confirmation of Democracy in Cuba
Peter Montgomery
Christian Nationalism: Good for Politicians, Bad for America and the World
Ted Rall
Bad Drones
Jill Richardson
The Latest Attack on Food Stamps
Andrew Stewart
What Kind of Unionism is This?
Ellen Brown
Fox in the Hen House: Why Interest Rates Are Rising
April 23, 2018
Patrick Cockburn
In Middle East Wars It Pays to be Skeptical
Thomas Knapp
Just When You Thought “Russiagate” Couldn’t Get Any Sillier …
Gregory Barrett
The Moral Mask
Robert Hunziker
Chemical Madness!
David Swanson
Senator Tim Kaine’s Brief Run-In With the Law
Dave Lindorff
Starbucks Has a Racism Problem
Uri Avnery
The Great Day
Nyla Ali Khan
Girls Reduced to Being Repositories of Communal and Religious Identities in Kashmir
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail