Our Social Structure is Rigged

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“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 into 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.

Khalil Bendib / OtherWords.org

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.

The post Our Social Structure is Rigged appeared first on OtherWords.

This piece was reprinted from Other Words by RINF Alternative News with permission.

  • Enki’s_Advocate

    The income tax was not started until the 20th century. It needs to be totally repealed. Income is legally defined as money made by CORPORATIONS, not living humans. We are supposed to self-govern, not have career politicians and bureaucrats siphoning off the nation’s wealth. College degrees are worthless anyway due to the degradation of the education system and the practice of using them to sort job candidates needs to be abolished.

    • DesertSun59

      ‘College degrees are worthless anyway’

      And we’re supposed to read your comment and say, ‘that commenter sounds so reasonable’.

  • PJ London

    “Your owners think they have you by the balls.
    They spend billions of dollars every year lobbying to get what they want. Well, we know what they want; they want more for themselves and less for everybody else. But I’ll tell you what they don’t want—they don’t want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking. They don’t want well informed, well educated people capable of critical thinking. They’re not interested in that. That doesn’t help them. That’s against their interest. You know something, they don’t want people that are smart enough to sit around their kitchen table and figure out how badly they’re getting fucked by a system that threw them overboard 30 fucking years ago. Because the owners of this country know the truth, it’s called the American Dream, because you have to be asleep to believe it.” – George Carlin
    “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you mad.” ? Aldous Huxley