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What is a sociological imagination, and can it affect how we live our daily lives?

An excellent example of paper 1 by M.H. Fall 2009.

Why are we the way we are, and how has the society in which we live subconsciously influenced the decisions we make in our day-to-day lives? Every culture is unique, and it shapes our lives in more ways than we know. In his book, Essentials of Sociology, Henslin states "Sociologists look at how jobs, income, education, gender, age, and race-ethnicity affect people's ideas and behavior." (4) When we learn to think sociologically, we can begin to understand how our society's culture influences and ultimately helps shape our own personal life experiences. This "sociological imagination" is a way to look at a society's culture and "see" general social patterns that can affect an individual's day-to-day decisions. Additionally, it helps us to reach beyond the individual to try to understand how the society in which a person lives help shape them as individuals and how society influences their behavior and the decisions they make.

The Online Dictionary of Sociology - Athabasca University defines the social imagination as "The ability to imagine and understand the intersection between personal biography and historical social structures. . . . imagining that every individual's life is given meaning, form and significance within historically specific cultures and ways of organizing social life." Using this definition suggests that in order for us to understand the influence a particular culture might have on an individual, we must examine all of a society's cultural inner workings and determine how they relate to the individual and how they influence the decisions they may make.

We can choose almost any component of society as an example to demonstrate this point. For insistence, the number of children that a woman chooses to have might seem on the surface to be a completely individual choice, but the underlying reason why she may choose that certain number is shaped by the society in which she lives. For example, the average American has 1.85 children, and in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, the women have an average of 3.4 children. However, the highest number of children born per woman is found in some of the poorest countries, such as Niger, where the average woman has 7.1 children. (World Factfiles 2009)

Reasons that might account for the extreme differences in the number of children born per woman are social in nature. Women in developed countries are inclined to be educated, have access to healthcare, and have many economic opportunities available to them. The women in the poorest countries tend to be uneducated, have few, if any, economic opportunities available to them, and generally do not have access to healthcare; therefore they are less likely to use contraception.

In fact, underlying cultural customs are at the forefront of their childbearing decisions. When the Deputy Director of Niger's Institute for National Statistics in Niger interviewed women and asked them how many children they would like to have, the women said they would like to have nine and men said twelve. Some families said they would like 40 or 50. (Niger, 2007) The Deputy Director went on to state that, "The only way to put it, is this is a society with a very pro-natal philosophy that encourages procreation. . . . . People aren't informed enough about the negative consequences of having so many children." (Niger, 2007) Accordingly, it would seem, society and their cultural "norms" do influence the decisions women and men make, even with regard to childbearing.

Another example of how a society can automatically or subconsciously influence the decision a person makes in their individual life comes from a personal experience. One of my sons plays baseball. At his level, (he is 12 years old), there is a maximum number of pitches a player can throw in a week; this is a rule set by the league to prevent injury to a developing arm. (Pitching is very hard on the shoulder and elbow.) One of the players on my son's team just moved to America from Japan. He spoke little English (sometimes he would need an interpreter to help him understand what he was supposed to do), and was still learning about American culture. Nevertheless, he was very excited about playing baseball. He turned out to be a very good pitcher, and his team used him as often as they could (as often as the league allowed).

My son's team did well, and made it to the league playoffs. Abe was scheduled to pitch at the opening game, so he practiced long hours for days before the playoff so he could do his best for the team. During the game, he was doing a great job pitching, but by the third inning, I started to notice an abnormal look on his face after each pitch. I could see he was pure pain, and he was rubbing his shoulder after every pitch. When he reached his pitching limit, and the coach took him out, he went into the dugout and started to cry. As it turned out, he tore some ligaments in his shoulder, but did not "complain" to the coach, as it was his "duty" to finish pitching for his team.

There is a cultural tradition in Japan that is similar to what Daniel Quinn wrote about in his book Ishmael, when Ishmael was telling his new student his "story" about living in the zoo. Ishmael said, "Their family [the gorillas] is like a hand, of which they are the fingers. They are fully aware of being a family but are very little aware of being individuals." ( 12) In Japan's culture, the whole is more important than the part, so it is more important to consider everybody else first and yourself second. Without even realizing it, or giving it a second thought, Abe felt he had to finish his pitching duty for his team even though he was in a lot of pain and risked serious injury doing it.

Additionally, society can influence how we perceive our role in society, and even the jobs we choose. Many women feel this dilemma in their life. In American society, there is still residue from past generations, which dictate a woman's role in society, such as what they are supposed to accomplish, how they should behave, and what the meaning of a wife and mother are, but things are changing, slowly. Even with the progress that has been made in America, women firefighters, police officers, construction workers, and engineers are uncommon. In other countries, such as Afghanistan, where the Taliban had severely oppressed women, women are still afraid to return to work, show their face, and are denied such basic rights as voting. In Mexico, the women are not oppressed, but tradition still dictates that a woman's role is to "seek marriage as their personal development". (Marquez, 13)

As we can see, the sociological imagination helps us to predict what each of us will probably do under specific conditions. Thinking sociologically teaches us that in our life, there are decisions we are free to make, but that the society in which we live can have a bearing on why we make those decisions. Thinking sociologically helps us to evaluate the world around us, which in turn, makes it possible for us to pursue our goals more effectively. Thinking sociologically allows us to become valuable participants in our society, and thinking sociologically removes the "rose colored glasses" we wear with regard to nationality, race, religion, and gender, and helps us to understand our diverse world and the choices people make.

Works Cited

1. Henslin, James M. 2009. Essentials of Sociology A down-to-Earth Approach. Allyn and Bacon:
Boston MA

2. Online Dictionary of Sociology - Athabasca University

3. The Guardian 2009. "World Factfiles: Country Profiles"

4. Irin News 2007. "Niger: Population Explosion Threatens Development Gains" http://www.irinnews.org/Report.aspx?ReportId=75801

5. Quinn, Daniel 1009. Ishmael. Bantam/Turner: New York, NY

6. Marquez, Celina Melgoza. "An Introduction to Mexico and the Role of Women." http://www.wvu.edu/~exten/infores/pubs/fypubs/mexico.pdf