Updated: Dec 8, 2020
When you’re trained, intensely, to think about all the finite details of social behavior and inequality, the world can start to lose its magic. Nothing is coincidental or “fate” when you can explain the outcomes with data or theory—or better yet, both. Sociology is not for the ill-hearted. It strips the world of its magic, but only for those who got to experience the magic of the world in the first place. What’s that magic, you ask? Well, it’s what sociologists call privilege, power, and advantage, to name a few.
You see, sociology is an amazing tool that empowers us to understand the impact of our presence, our behaviors, our thoughts, and our choices. It can also, however, expose the world for what it is: inequitable and ruthless. And when the world is exposed for what it truly is, the impact of our presence, behaviors, thoughts, and choices becomes painfully clear. If you grew up less privileged than the average person in your country, perhaps sociology is more empowering than it is disappointing. It allows you to understand how the disadvantage you faced, and likely still face, is not the outcome of any individual shortcomings. Rather, the disadvantages we face in life are mostly due to social structural challenges and flaws that limit our individual choices and behaviors.
Regardless of the disadvantage we’ve faced in life, we all experience advantage on some level. This idea may be easier to grasp if we think about it on a global scale. Perhaps you bear the brunt of racial inequality as a minority living the U.S. That brunt costs peoples their lives, their futures, their family and friends. That brunt is nothing short of devastating and destructive. However, on a global scale, simply living in the U.S. brings you advantage. Living in the U.S. comes with freedoms that people in other parts of the world only dream of. But, that’s not to say the U.S. does not have its fair share of social problems. The advantage that Americans live with doesn’t discount the oppression that many Americans face because of their race, sex, gender identity, sexual identity, ability, occupation, age, religion, etc. It does, however, show us that we all experience privilege, power, and advantage on some level.
What does it mean, then, to understand how our own advantages are imbedded within the social structures that shape social life? What do we do when we realize that our advantage is often what places others in disadvantaged positions? Our privilege does not exist in a vacuum. Rather, it exists because another group—the “other” group—is facing oppression. Their oppression is what allows us to maintain a position of power.
Just as we all carry privilege around with us, we likely all face disadvantage or oppression on some level. I’m a white, able-bodied, relatively thin, middle-class woman with a graduate education who has genital herpes. Based on the identities I listed out, you may already know which identities bring me power and privilege, and which bring me oppression and disadvantage. My race and socioeconomic status certainly afford me many advantages in life. However, being a woman comes with its own set of obstacles, as does being a woman with an incurable STI.
So, what do we do about all these identities of privilege and oppression? We use sociology to make sense of how those identities are interconnected (i.e., they’re intersectional) and how they impact various groups of people in society. Once we understand the connection between our identities—or the various groups we belong to in society—and systems of power and oppression in society, we can start to interact with other people and our surroundings in ways that mitigate the negative effects of privilege.
As a sociologist, I often find myself discouraged by everything I’ve learned about how the world works. Sometimes, I forget that my knowledge is empowering because I often feel completely helpless as an individual against an inequitable and ruthless world. In those times of discouragement, it’s important to reflect on the tools I’ve gained as a sociologist and remember how valuable and empowering they really are. I hope you’ve enjoyed this reflection of mine, and, if you are a fellow sociologist who’s been feeling discouraged lately, I hope this reminded you how empowering our discipline can be.