Throughout this semester, I hope you've learned some good tools which will assist you with breaking down social problems in a way which is productive and which relies on science rather than opinion. While I prefer the ease and simplicity of the Four Questions Approach developed by Charon and Vigilant, there are several other ways that sociologists examine social problems. Should you continue to study sociology—specifically social problems—hopefully, you learn some additional ideas of sociologists who specialize in studying social problems.
In this lesson, we return to the United States, with a re-examination of the American Dream. Knowing what you know now about the social structure of the US, you may have a different point of view about the American Dream than you did when you first began this semester. Next, sociologist and Harvard Professor Dr. Jennifer Hochschild explains why the American Dream ideal may be a dangerous place for us to put out faith.
We probably think the American Dream is easy to define, and we likely think of it as an ideal that, with a little effort, we can achieve.
But the American Dream is illusive, and changes over time. As you can see from the graphic below, the American Dream has meant different things to different generations of Americans:
Sociologist Jennifer Hochschild says that we must define the American dream in order to evaluate the future of our society. Her goals, in her academic essays about the American dream, are twofold:
Hochschild says that the American dream is made up of ideas about achieving success. But, people seek success in different ways. So, how can we know what it takes to achieve it? For some, it is earning a high income, having a prestigious job, or economic security. But material success is only one form of accomplishment. And, sometimes, as Hochschild says, different kinds of success will be in conflict with each other. So, perhaps we could define success in the following ways:
In 1993, President Bill Clinton said, “[t]he American dream that we were all raised on is a simple but powerful one—if you work hard and play by the rules you should be given a chance to go as far as your God-given ability will take you.” In that one sentence, Clinton captured the ideas we have about success—the ideas that make up the ideology of the American dream. These ideas we have answer questions:
As Hochschild continues in her writing, “[t]he answer to ‘who’ in the standard ideology is everyone, regardless of ascriptive traits, family background, or personal history. The answer to ‘what’ is the reasonable anticipation, though not the promise, of success, however it is defined. The answer to ‘how’ is through actions and traits under [our] own control. The answer to ‘why’ is true success is associated with virtue."
We like to think that we live in a society where everyone has the chance to pursue their dream. We also like to think that we do not have to resort to abnormal steps to get there. But from a social problems perspective, we might assert that there are social structures in place that will prevent many from pursuing success. Still, we believe that we can create a personal set of conditions in our lives that will allow us to disregard the racism, sexism, (and other -isms) of the past, allowing us to create and invent a better future for ourselves, completely unimpeded by the structures of the past.
In a nutshell, we believe that anyone has the opportunity to achieve the American dream.
In the US, we also assume that we can be reasonably successful. But, anticipating success does not equal actual success. Hochschild says: "[r]easonable anticipation is far from a guarantee, as all children on the morning of their birthday know.”
The hope of success is a big part of our society. We think that there are myriad opportunities for the achievement of the American dream. And so, we encourage each other to “go for it!” And most Americans agree that we have a good chance to improve our standards of living, inching closer and closer to the ideal of the American dream.
In her writing, Hochschild explains how we use advertisement imagery to show ourselves what success and the American dream look like. Advertisements often subtly (or obviously) show images of people who have been rewarded by the marketplace according to their own personal talents and accomplishments. But this imagery fails to account for myriad facts of contemporary American success, such as who we know and how they can help (or conversely, hurt) our chances of success.
The answer to the “what” isn’t complex: the “what” of the American dream is the achievement of a higher standard of living than we currently have.
This ideal explains how we are supposed to achieve our anticipated success. And Americans continue to believe that we are rewarded for our own acts of achievement, stating that there is opportunity to be had, and that if we simply work hard enough, we can go as far as we want up the ladders of success.
Thus, the answer to this question is also a simple one: work hard. If you do, you will most certainly achieve the American dream.
Implied in the American dream narrative are a few simple notions about the relationships between success and virtue:
Americans have learned about success and virtue very well. We distinguish between the “worthy” and “unworthy” rich, as well as the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor. Thus, the worthy rich have gotten their riches in a morally straightforward way—they deserve their riches and have done things to rightfully earn their wealth. Likewise, the deserving poor have gotten what they deserve—nothing—due to their lack of virtue.
So, the answer to the “why” question is also quite simple: because you deserve it.
Is it possible that the American dream is simply a fantasy? A product of our imaginations?
The American dream ideology portrays America as a land of plenty, and Americans as "people of plenty." If success is measured by competition over scarce social resources, with the winner amassing more resources than the loser, our definition of success implies we live in an America that is very far apart from the ideology of the American dream. This “winner take all” notion combined with the characteristic of virtue (either real or imagined) and scarce resources produces a few spectacular winners and many, many losers.
Thus, the American dream is an impressive, but choosy ideology. As Hochschild states, [i]t has for centuries lured people to America and moved them around within it, and it has kept them striving in horrible conditions against impossible odds. Most Americans celebrate it unthinkingly, along with apple pie and motherhood; criticism typically is limited to imperfections in its application. But like apple pie and motherhood, the American dream turns out upon closer examination to be less than perfect.”
Hochschild, as you can see, is a sharp critic of our belief in a fair and just society which simply rewards hard work. She instead, delves more deeply into the who, what, how and why of the dream to show us what she believes to be a dangerous fantasy which harkens back to the idea of Karl Marx and the false consciousness.
Premise #1—Who?: everyone can participate equally and can always start over.
Hochschild asserts that this is simply not true. Somehow, the first rule has been changed in contemporary society. Now, we usually hear some variant of the original rule. Something that accounts for differences in the starting line, but still assure us that the dream can be had by all: we start the pursuit of the American dream with varying advantages, but no one is barred from the pursuit.
But this is more problematic than our original assumption. The gap between claim and fact is hard to recognize, but consider what Hochschild states: “[a]s a factual claim, the first rule is largely false; for most of American history, women of any race and men who were Native American, Asian, black, or poor were barred from all but a narrow range of futures.’”
Of course, constraints have been weakened over time, but until recently no more than about a third of the population was able to take seriously the first premise of the American dream. There are serious implications beyond the obvious ones of racism and sexism. The emotional potency of the American dream has made it the norm for everyone.
Historically, white men, especially European immigrants, were able to ride the wave of the Industrial Revolution (and to benefit from the absence of competition from the rest of the population). Those who did not fit the model disappear from the conversation, from the self-portrait of historical America. The irony is apparent: not only has the ideal of universal participation been denied to most Americans, but also the very fact of its denial has been denied in our national heritage.
This creates deep misunderstandings and political tensions. One such tension is that whites increasingly believe that racial discrimination today is slight and declining, and blacks increasingly believe the opposite. Another is that more women than men believe that women are discriminated against in employment and wages, in being able to combine family and work, and in their overall chance to pursue their dreams. Likewise, more men than women believe that women are better off today than a decade earlier with regard to these issues. Not surprisingly, bitter disagreements about the need for affirmative action, policies to stem sexual harassment, family leave policies, and the like ensue.
Premise #2—What?: decent paying jobs, ability to provide for a family economically and emotionally, a safe place to live.
Hochschild asserts that our flawed ideas about our ability to anticipate and achieve success are related to our expectations. That link presents little problem so long as there are enough resources and opportunities that everyone has a reasonable chance of having at least some expectations met.
Our fantasies about our path to success are fine—having goals, even if unachievable, gives us something to work toward. But resources must roughly balance dreams for enough people enough of the time, and in our society today, they do not.
Today, the dream is rapidly losing its appeal. Again, Hochschild is able to succinctly relate: “[t]he circumstances that cause resources no longer to balance dreams vary, from an economic downturn to a rapid increase in the number of [American] dreamers to a narrowing of the grounds on which success is publicly recognized. The general point, however, always holds: no one promises that dreams will be fulfilled, but the distinction between the right to dream and the right to succeed is psychologically hard to maintain and politically always blurred. It is especially hard to maintain because the dream sustains Americans against daily nightmares only if they believe that they have a significant likelihood, not just a formal chance, of reaching their goals. In short, the right to aspire to success works as an ideological substitute for a guarantee of success only if it begins to approach it. When people recognize that chances for success are slim or getting slimmer, the whole [idea] of the American dream changes dramatically for the worse.”
Premise #3—How?: by working hard and applying one's self.
Failure is made harsher by the third rule of the American dream: the belief that success results from actions and traits under our own personal control. This means that if success results from individual action, then failure results from our own personal lack of action. In other words, if we claim responsibility for our success, we must accept responsibility for our failure.
Americans who do everything they can and still fail probably understand that effort and talent alone do not guarantee success. But they have a hard time persuading others. After all, they are losers. Why listen to them? Shouldn’t we just be listening to the winners?
Premise #4—Why?: because if we achieve, we are good and virtuous people, and have a right to control those who don't achieve.
It should be apparent to us by now that, if we believe in the American dream as an achievable reality for most, failure, is not an option. There are reasons why failure is such an important part of believing in the dream. First, it challenges the blurring between anticipation and promise that is the emotional heart of the American dream. Second, and perhaps most importantly, it allows us to separate ourselves from people who fail, people who are presumed to lack talent or will. This failure of individuals implies that they and they alone are “bad” or “sinful,” and we who may have achieved success despite overwhelming odds are “good” and “virtuous.”
As Hochschild points out, “American history and popular culture are replete with demonstrations of the connection between failure and sin. In the 1600s, indentured servants, kidnapped children, convicts, and struggling families alike were described by earlier immigrants as beggars, vagabonds, common and notorious whores, and thieves." Small wonder that even today the poor blame the poor for their condition!
The fourth rule can take an even more dangerous step. Hochschild concludes, “[f]or some Americans… virtuous success has been defined as the dominance of some groups over others. This phenomenon extends the idea of competitive success from individual victories to collective hierarchies. If women are weak and emotional, it is right for men to control their bodies and wealth; if blacks are childlike pagans, it is right for whites to ensure their physical and spiritual survival through enslavement and conversion; if citizens of other nations refuse to recognize the value of capitalism and free elections, it is right for Americans to install a more enlightened government in their [country]. I find it hard to present these sentiments with a straight face, but they have arguably done almost as much as the American dream to shape Americans' beliefs, practices, and institutions.”
First, read this chapter from Openstax Introduction to Sociology (2nd edition) which explains how and why social movements happen.
Many things can spur social movements to happen. Once the people in a society begin to organize, the way is cleared for social change to happen.
SOCIAL MOVEMENT: collective activities designed to bring about or resist primary changes in an existing society or group.
Social movements have the capacity to dramatically shape the communities, countries, and world in which we live. The social structures in which we live have the capacity to change, but seldom will without pressure from groups who want change to happen. As an example, in her day, people considered Margaret Sanger's efforts to make birth control available extreme and even immoral, yet today in the United States, one can easily purchase contraceptive products. When groups work together to force changes to happen, we can achieve major shifts in social and political policy, and we can do much to shift public opinion (hopefully, for the better, but sometimes, for the worse).
Sociologists want to know why social movements happen? How do they emerge and what causes them? There are two major theories that we use to explain social movements and why people mobilize for change: relative deprivation and resource mobilization.
Relative deprivation theory works hand in hand with our belief in the American dream. It explains change as happening when people begin to feel frustrated with the lack of access to social, political and economic resources. It works based on our perceptions of what we believe our situations to be.
RELATIVE DEPRIVATION THEORY: the perception that differences exist between wants and actualities (between where you are and where you want to be).
What this means is that people may not actually be deprived, but may believe they are. When this happens, and groups band together, social movement occurs. There are a few things that must happen for relative deprivation theory to work:
There are a few criticisms of this theory. First, we know that feeling deprived doesn't always make us band together and act upon our feelings. Second, we also know that people don't have to have feelings of deprivation to make a social movement occur. Finally, this theory can't explain to us why some feelings of deprivation make us form groups to reform society while others do not.
Resource mobilization theory deals with how social movements mobilize resources: political pull, mass media, personnel and leadership, money, and so forth. This theory states that a movement's success or failure largely depends on how well it uses its resources.
RESOURCE MOBILIZATION THEORY: social movement success depends on how resources are used by the members of the movement.
Under resource mobilization, leadership is an important component in making a movement successful. A charismatic leader is virtually essential.
CHARISMATIC LEADER: An individual who gathers followers through personality and charm, rather than any form of external power or authority. They gain followers by “'working the room,” paying attention to the person they are talking to, making that person feel like they are important. This encourages the person to buy into the movement’s cause.
Charismatic leaders are good at picking up on moods individuals and larger audiences. They then will hone their actions and words to suit the situation. While they will show great confidence in their followers, they may not really have any concern at a singular level for the members of the group. These leaders are very persuasive and make very effective use language, both verbal and nonverbal. Many politicians use a charismatic style, as they need to gather a large number of followers.
Charismatic leaders who are building a social movement often focus on making the group very clear and distinct, separating it from other groups.
The above ideas about charismatic leadership make these leaders seem less than desirable, however, that’s not the case all the time. Consider the charisma of the following: MLK, Jr., Mother Theresa, and Ghandi.
Researchers Conger & Kanungo (1998) describe charismatic leadership from a less incendiary point of view. They say that charismatic leaders have these five attributes: vision and articulation; sensitivity to the environment; sensitivity to member needs; personal risk taking; and performing unconventional behavior.
Under this theory, the leader mobilizes people for a cause. But charisma can fade, and social movements collapse if/when this happens.
It is possible for people to develop new behaviors when they become a part of a social movement. Movements may require members to dress in specific ways, boycott certain products, pay dues, attend marches or rallies, recruit new members, and use new language.
For a social movement to succeed, leaders must also work to heighten their members' awareness of oppression.
Some of you have taken my Introduction to Sociology course. When there is time left at the end of a semester, I try to teach about the work of Dr. Gene Sharp. What I often tell people about Dr. Sharp is that he is "the most important man in the world that you've never heard about." Dr. Sharp (who as of the writing of this lesson, is 89 years old and still going strong!), is the founder of the Albert Einstein Institute and the subject of the 2011 crowd-funded documentary "How to Start a Revolution." His associate, Jamila Raqib, speaks to TED about the importance of non-violent resistance (closed captioning available):
What Jamila Raqib and Dr. Sharp teach is not new, but the point that Jamila Raqib makes in her lecture is very important: simply protesting is a very different technique than non-violent resistance. Non-violent resistance, as Raqib says, takes the pillars of institutional support away from those in power. If you have an opportunity to watch How to Start a Revolution, I encourage you to do so. There is a copy in DVD form in the EFSC Library (on Melbourne Campus, but transferable to any EFSC location), and there are some online venues where you can watch. My students always tell me that it is the most powerful and meaningful documentary they've watched in college!
Remember too, that Karl Marx wrote about the stuggles of everyday people in the mid-1800s, MLK Jr. used the principles of non-violent resistance, as did Ghandi and many others.
Often, thinking about social problems can feel overwhelming, especially if we don't understand what we can do—if anything—about them. And, frankly, I don't have a "one-size-fits-all" solution for this problem. While I've given you some tools for identifying and breaking down social problems into manageable pieces, I still can't tell you what you personally can do (or should do) to help ease the problems that people have—problems that are directly related to the structure of our country (and many other places around the world). What I hope you get from this class is a basic way to think about these kinds of problems which is personally productive, and which helps you to decide what, if anything, you are willing do on a personal level and culturally, politically, and socially.
The decisions you make to involve yourself more in the world are very personal—they should be. Unfortunately, many people never take the steps to become involved. But you've already taken one big step—you took this course. And hopefully, this course gave you the practical knowledge you need to make a difference, not only in the lives of others, but in your own life.
One concept I try to touch on in all of my courses is the importance of relying on credible resources to understand the world. Today in the US, we seem to be having a problem with how to identify what's credible and what's not. Fake news stories are all over the Internet, and because they look "real," many people assume they are real. This can be a serious problem when we are trying to make the case for the structure of society being the catalyst for social problems to exist. If we believe in what's not real, we probably have a greater tendency to place blame for problems directly on the shoulders of the individual, and in doing so, we neglect to address the role of the structure.
While it's not a main focus in this class, I feel that every course I teach should at least touch on the problems we create when we believe in falsehoods. To give you some background, first read this except of an essay written by Professor Benjamin Barber about why we should be concerned with the sources of knowledge.
As you read Professor Barber's essay, you learned that knowledge and opinion are two distinct, different concepts:
KNOWLEDGE: familiarity, awareness, or understanding of something (such as facts, information, descriptions, or skills) which is acquired by education and learning. Knowledge acquisition involves complex cognitive processes: perception, communication, and reasoning.
OPINION: a judgment, viewpoint, or statement that is not conclusive, which is subjective matters. Fact is different from opinion because facts are likely to be verifiable and agreed to by consensus of experts, while opinions do not have to stand up to a consensus threshold.
It's true! Everyone can have any opinion about anything. But, as a college professor, I would be remiss in my duty to you if I didn't wrap up the semester with some thoughts about opinions and knowledge.
What I hope my students get from my courses:
Sociology is often referred to as the "doom and gloom" discipline. And, it's true. We do study all kinds of social problems and ills. This can wear on a person, especially if they don't see the solutions that can be put in place. This is where you come in. You've taken the important step to learn about sociology and you've grazed the surface of some of the major social problems in the US and around the world. Now, you have to take what you've learned and apply it.
Do not be afraid to use your sociological skills for good :) The only way I can keep a firm grip on teaching sociology, which I love doing, is to remember that my job as a sociologist is to help others see the world for what it really is, not for what they think it might be. And, that gives me hope that I can stack up against the "doom and gloom."
I hope you've gotten what you needed from this class, and I wish you the very best moving forward.