In order to proceed, we must first learn about what macro-level social forces are. READ this short primer on Macro Sociology Defined.
A problem that plagues modern, industrialized societies is that of inequality. Inequalities (of all kinds) are macro-level forces, and are embedded in the very structure of capitalistic (and may other political and economic forms of) societies. In order to be a capitalistic type of society, inequalities must exist.
As an example, we have inequality in our system of higher education. Some fortunate young people will go to Harvard University, while others won't have that chance. Those that do go to Harvard are overwhelmingly from the upper classes of society (yes, of course there are exceptions). Those from the working classes rarely go to Harvard. And, in an of itself, this is fine. We have to have some inequality in modern societies to make people want to achieve difficult tasks (such as admission to Harvard, taking on difficult careers, and so on). But the inequality doesn't stop there.
The Harvard graduate gains access to career choices that are rarely available to the person who doesn't go to Harvard. The Harvard graduate also gains access to networking resources that aren't available to the non-Harvard graduate, thus adding even more inequality to the picture. Once graduated, the jobs market also works to the favor of the Harvard graduate, who has networked her way in the front door to a prestigious company just simply by attending Harvard University and knowing the right people at the University. All of these resources that the Harvard graduate has set her apart from her peers who did no go to Harvard, and become what sociologists refer to as "cultural capital:"
CULTURAL CAPITAL: social assets of a person (education, intellect, style of speech and dress, family name and connections, etc.) that promote social mobility in a stratified society.
In other words, cultural capital isn't only about what you know, it's also about who you know and using these assets to your advantage to climb up social, economic and corporate ladders.
Over time, the non-Harvard graduate, even when he works just as hard (and maybe harder than) the Harvard graduate, loses economic ground as the job he took just out of college wasn't at the most prestigious place. His salary may have been lower to start than the Harvard graduate's was, and over time, this adds up to less opportunity to climb up.
You might be saying, "well, if the non-Harvard person had tried harder in high school, maybe he could have gotten into Harvard." And, you might be right. But the odds are not in your (or the non-Harvard graduate's) favor. So, even when the non-Harvard graduate does everything possible to be as successful as his Harvard educated counterpart, he likely won't be, and this is through no fault of his own. It is simply due to the doors (opportunities) that Harvard opened.
So, this vague notion of inequality is very much real and alive in any stratified society which has scarce resources (jobs, educational opportunities, money, and so on). And, these kinds of inequalities are often directly out of a person's control, but have myriad impacts to an individual's life trajectory. Even more troubling is that when we have this kind of inequality, and it gets reinforced by the social structure, entire groups of people start to be disenfranchised and opportunities for success for the entire group are diminished over time.
What exactly does a sociologist mean when she talks about social institutions? READ this short paper which defines what institutions are.
Further, how do sociologists define inequality? READ this article about the sociological definition of inequality by sociologist Robert Max Jackson.
Kurt Lewin was the first one to use the term "gatekeeping," which he used to describe a wife or mother as the person who decides which foods end up on the family's dinner table. (Lewin, 1947). The gatekeeper is the person who decides what shall pass through each gate section. Further, in any process, there are several gates. The gatekeeper concept has slipped into the language of many disciplines, including the gatekeeping of scarce social resources, such as jobs, education, health care, welfare benefits, and so on.
GATEKEEPING: deciding what resources will be distributed, and to whom.
The gatekeeper decides which person will go forward, and which person will not. In other words, a gatekeeper in a social system decides which commodity or social resource—materials, goods, and information—may be distributed, and who will reap the benefits of the resource. Gatekeepers often do this by creating complex requirements or paperwork for individuals to fill out when they try to access resources. A good example of this is when, after a natural disaster (hurricane, fire, flood), individuals are asked to prove residence in an affected area—no ID, no resources. Many people escaping a disaster do not have with them proof of residence. Without that proof, some are denied government assistance.
Additionally, some workers who are gatekeepers take on more power than their roles designate. They may make decisions to gatekeep people away from resources based on their own personal agendas.
Gatekeepers are able to control people by letting some people into the system to gain access to resources and by keeping others out. Gatekeepers work for institutions or organizations which serve to make contact with people who need or want to gain access to various social resources (jobs, education, government, the military, and so on). In a political system there are gatekeepers, individuals or institutions which control access to positions of power and regulate the flow of information and political influence. Gatekeepers exist in many social and professional settings, and their choices of who to let in and who to keep out color our perceptions of groups in a given society or community.
The gatekeeper’s choices are a complex web of influences, preferences, motives and common values. Gatekeeping is inevitable and in some circumstances, it is deemed useful. Gatekeeping can also be dangerous, since it can lead to an abuse of power by deciding who to let inside the gate and who to leave outside it.
When gatekeeping is prevalent within a society, institutionalized racism is also likely present.
INSTITUTIONALIZED RACISM: Racism created and maintained by government and corporate entities that negatively impacts many people belonging to a specific racial group.
Scholars assert that while individual people may have racist feelings about specific groups, racism in the US would not have thrived if institutions hadn’t encouraged discrimination against people of color for many generations. Some examples of institutional racism:
If institutional racism isn’t mitigated, there’s little hope that racial discrimination will ever be erased in the United States.
There are instances in which resisting social change can be positive for a society, but some people and groups resist social change at all costs. Some people have vested interests in maintaining the status quo—keeping things exactly as they are—they stand to lose if social change occurs. For some, the idea of change causes insecurity, and the idea of adapting to a changing world is terrifying, as change results in a loss of power.
STATUS QUO: Keeping things exactly as they are. If you agree with the current state of things, then you are "for" the status quo. If you disagree with the way things are, then you are "against" the status quo.
Capitalistic economic systems, such as ours in the US, encourage business owners and corporate executives to protect their assets at the expense of workers. This could cause them to ignore safety standards or to lobby government officials to lessen safety and environmental regulations. It most certainly plays a role in setting worker salaries as the primary job of a business or a corporation is to maximize profits, which often means minimizing labor costs. It is no surprise, then, that many larger US companies and corporations have set up shop in countries where labor costs are pennies compared to the US dollar.
Social movements typically question a culture's established ideas about ethics, norms, morality and standards (among many other ideals). Thus, social movements play a pivotal role in disrupting the status quo, and may pave the way for disadvantaged or marginalized groups to secure additional power. Of course, gatekeepers will try to do their jobs to keep "undesired" groups away from sources of social resources and cultural power (such as money, good paying jobs, secure, safe housing, and so on). The efforts of the gatekeepers are often so subtle, that we don't realize what's happening, and in many cases, we "buy in" to the gatekeeper's message: keep things as they are and everything will work out in the end. This is the exact problem that Marx described when we spoke about the development of the "false consciousness:"
FALSE CONSCIOUSNESS: a way of thinking that prevents a person from perceiving the true nature of their social or economic situation; this kind of thinking supports the status quo.
Unless and until we are able to understand where we truly fit into the structures of society, we are stuck in a state of false consciousness. Only when we develop a real understanding of where we fit in relationship to other groups can we break away from the false consciousness and develop a class consciousness—the reality of where we fit in.
CLASS CONSCIOUSNESS: awareness of one's place in a system of social classes, especially (in Marxist terms) as it relates to the class struggle; knowing where you fit in and how you got there, as well as knowing what your chances of chaning your class are, relative to others.
As group needs go unmet over time and people become dissatisifed with the status quo, social change may occur. This is generally proceeded by a period of high anomie.
Anomie is a social condition in which common social norms and values begin to disintegrate. The concept, often simply defined as “normlessness,” was developed by Émile Durkheim. He discovered that anomie occurs during and after periods of drastic and rapid changes to the social, economic, or political structures of society. Durkheim thought that periods of anomie were transitional, meaning that they would be a period of time when common norms were phased out, and new norms were not yet established.
ANOMIE: social instability resulting from a breakdown of standards and values. The feelings of normlessness that happen with people don't feel connected to their society.
This feeling of anomie has the potential to cause great social unrest. People who live during periods of anomie typically feel disconnected from their society because they no longer see the meaningful norms and values that they understand being reflected back in the mirror of society. This may mean that the roles a person plays (such as an occupational role) are no longer valued by society. Because of this, anomie can foster the feeling that we have no value or purpose. This can lead to feelings of hopelessness and encourage deviant behavior.
Durkheim's work proved influential to pioneering American sociologist Robert K. Merton. Building on Durkheim's theory that anomie is a social condition in which people's norms and values no longer sync with those of society, Merton created his own theory to explain how anomie leads to deviant behavior.
The theory states that when society does not provide the necessary legitimate and legal means that allow people to achieve culturally valued goals, people seek out alternative means that may simply break from the norm, or may violate norms and laws. For example, if society does not provide enough jobs that pay a living wage so that people can work to survive, some may turn to crime of earning a living. So for Merton, deviance and crime are, in large part, a result of anomie -- a state of social disorder. Further, deviance is not necessarily bad under Merton's perspective. People who deviate from acceptable social standards or norms often do so out of necessity. Merton's theory is often used in the field of criminology, and we will learn a bit more about it in a future lesson.
Now, it's time to turn our attention to micro-level social forces. READ Micro Sociology Defined.
As a discipline, sociology has not always been concerned with the plight of the individual. In its early stages, sociologists really only wanted to uncover social phenomenon by "bean counting" what was happening to different groups of people. But simply stating a statistic about the behavior of a specific group does not tell us enough about an issue to work toward solving social ills.
For example, if I survey all of my students, I might find out that 75% of them have part-time jobs. But, the answer to the question that I posed to my students (Q: Do you have at least a part-time job which pays you money?) doesn't tell me why the students have jobs. Further, I know (from my experience as a sociologist) that the responses when I ask the "why" question will be varied:
These varied responses give me a more accurate picture about who my students are. Thinking about social issues from a micro perspective helps me to gain a deeper understanding not only about the actual social problem, but also helps me to think about what some solutions to the problem may be. While the problem is the same problem for everyone who experiences it, the solutions to the problem may be varied.
Understanding the micro-level is tricky however, as we don't want to forget the influence of the structure when we are "diagnosing" social problems. But, we can certainly understand how looking at the problem on a smaller scale can lead us to finding myriad solutions.
Using the micro-level also shows us how complicated it can be to try to fix social problems, as it leads us to see that there are many solutions to a given social problem. It also helps us to see that we can't ever hope to completely eradicate most (if not all) of the social problems in our society. The best we can do is to work toward easing the problem for the most people possible. Thus, it is not the role of the sociologist studying social problems to completely erase the problem; it is the role of the sociologist studying social problems to try to ease the social problem for most people most of the time. If we can do this, we can go a long way toward making life better for most Americans.
The human costs of gatekeeping are real. In a society where access to social resources is severely restricted, gatekeeping oppresses certain groups and over generations, disparity widens. Couple gatekeeping with cultural misunderstandings, and you have a recipe for disaster—a disaster that will not only impact the groups who are kept away from resources (by disenfranchising them) but will also certainly have an impact on the entire society.
Gatekeeping encourages inequality. When we have gatekeepers who keep people away from the resources, we not only maintain the status quo, we also contribute to more inequality in society.
Now that we have learned "the basics" that will get us through the rest of this semester and our study of social problems, we will begin to learn about some of the prevalent social issues in the US (and globally). This will help us also to bring into focus the human costs of gatekeeping. We will learn about some of the prevalent social problems in the US, as well as a few that we could consider primary global problems in future lessons.