Social Structures: Tools for Political Development or Stagnation

The following was written for an undergraduate sociology course at the University of Kansas taught by Professor Lynn Davidman.

In our country, politics directly influence institutions of power, which thereby affect how people act and work within their own social classes. I am a white female with well-educated parents, who graduated with honors with further higher education already lined up. I have healthcare and a very small amount of debt. Arguably most important, I have a huge family and a proportionally sized safety net. Essentially, I’m never going to work at Wal-mart.

The upper-middle class institutions that I have been socialized to thrive within have allowed me to better understand our national political landscape. This understanding gives me the access to our government that people of lower socioeconomic classes do not have. Thus, I am more likely to not only participate in the political system, but to affect policy in a way that is advantageous to my way of life and to act in such a way that will keep me on this hierarchical level.

Growing up, I truly believed that I could be the Secretary of State, the president of the National Organization for Women and/or a world-class mom. I was not tied down by my own colloquial vocabulary, as it is the same language that those in power use. I never believed that my economic status could determine my career, because my family’s income allowed me the opportunity to attend college. We had the necessary resources to enable me take out loans and attend graduate school if I wanted to. My good fortune, though, is not attributed to my dedication to schoolwork or my skill at speaking to professionals in my field. I have adopted these personal traits because of the social institutions in which I was raised.

Government in the United States determines certain social structures and lays the groundwork for institutions that either open doors or deeply burden the people of America.

The policies that our elected officials choose to make are only advantageous to the people in their constituencies that have been able to make their voices heard. For example, the voter identification laws in our country were implemented with the hope of eliminating fraud, but have had the detrimental effect of lowering the number of people who are able to vote. Senior citizens and low-income individuals often have trouble finding forms of valid identification, and thus their opinions are often unable to be heard in the electoral process. Interest groups, like Higher Ed Watch or the Heritage Foundation, promote the opinions of their members by lobbying policymakers. These officials then are in a position where they are able to vote for or create legislation that works for the benefit of these people. Subsequently, this legislation affects how people interact with others and the types of careers to which people have access.

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Institutions, created by policies and upheld by the power elite that formed them in the first place, affect how people get certain jobs and achieve levels of success that correspond to their socioeconomic level. For example, the daily dynamics of Wal-mart workers are determined by the social structures to which they belong. If an employee is from a low socioeconomic class and is thus used to working long-hours with minimal pay and potentially no healthcare benefits, working at Wal-mart might not be a problem. If a woman has experienced rigid gender roles and oppression by men for her whole life, working in a place where workplace sexual harassment is a noted norm like Wal-mart might seem like a suitable job, particularly in a rural town where any type of career is difficult to come by (Laubich).

How employees treat and are treated by their managers and Wal-mart as a corporation is affected by the policies implemented by the federal and state governments. With the Affordable Care Act, Wal-mart may force its employees to work less than 40 hours a week so that they do not need to provide healthcare (Heller). This directly affects job satisfaction and performance, as the employer is essentially telling employees that their wellbeing does not matter. Employees of corporations, just like citizens of the United States, form reference groups that influence how they interact with their peers. When role-sets are in place, people are more likely to conform to what their peers will do. In the case of Wal-mart, if no one speaks out against workplace harassment or healthcare injustices, no change will occur. These practices then become institutionalized and the next generation of workers is likely to act just as the former did. They have no plans to create positive change because these practices have been presented to them as their only possible reality. Just as politics created institutions, the effect that institutions have on people affects policy. Or, in this case, not affect policy.

Furthermore, how people interact with one another within social structures affects the legislation that is produced. In an ideal world, elected officials would attempt to represent their constituents to the best of their ability, but this is not always true. Social hierarchies may help create status, which influences how people interact with the government and work for the advancement of their own needs. In particular, the power elite works to create tax policies that best benefit the wealthiest members of our society because they themselves are the top one percent.

In this way, the party in power always works to make policies that best reach their own public while the minority party attempts to fight the policies that conflict with the views of their own constituency.

In lower class communities, reaching the party in power, or any party for that matter is made more difficult because of their socialization into a lower social hierarchies. If someone does not grow up learning legal terminology, who their elected officials are, or the “proper” channels to reach politicians, they will not be able to effectively participate in their own governance.

In the song “Where I’m From”, American rapper Jay-Z brilliantly illustrates one of the key differences between elected officials and lower-income individuals. He says that people “from the street” believe that, “Your word was everything, so everything you said you’d do / You did it, couldn’t talk about it if you ain’t lived it” (Hancock). Unlike many politicians, who often make exaggerated or entirely false claims in order to get elected, trust and action is essential for people from low-income communities. When people must rely on others to protect, house or even feed their children, this trust is essential for survival. Therefore, people from low-income communities have a barrier between participating in their own local, state or national government. When there are ideas of mistrust or elitism, neither group seems to want to cooperate to create policies that benefit both groups. Thus, the cycle of poverty remains, as the power elite continue to affect policies that benefit wealthy factions the most and enshrouds both groups into a social hierarchy from which they cannot escape.

The inability of certain communities to participate in government creates a cyclical system that continues to disadvantage them both economically and socially. People from all social hierarchies are often unable to understand or break into other levels. For example, in Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich is unable to commiserate with her fellow employees at the diner due in part to her advanced vocabulary (Ehrenreich). She cannot transition to a lower class, just as it would be difficult for me to work at Wal-mart. As incredibly classist as it sounds, I would simply not be prepared for any type of manual labor because I have been socialized to believe that I will never need to perform such acts. Conversely, a lack of money or manners and therefore social status would not easily allow a waitress at a diner or an employee at Wal-mart the ability to run for political office.

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The way that they have been socialized to act affects who they interact with and the way in which they accomplish their goals, however low or lofty. This concept is supplemented when status and power prevent people from realizing the injustices within their current situation because they have rationalized their experiences. The status quo is their only reality because it is seen as organic and non-unique. For example, if Ehrenreich was having trouble finding a job, she might think it has something to do with the high unemployment rate in the United States and wouldn’t think that it had anything to do with her over-qualification or lack of blue-collar experience.

In such a way, people’s perceptions and preferences are shaped so that they often accept their role in the existing order of society and internalize elements of policy that may not be in their best interest. For example, in recent years Chicago city politicians have advocated for looser gun control laws, though fewer firearms could contribute to a lowered gun-death rate in a city that has over a thousand gun deaths in 2010 (Jeffrey). The people who these laws truly effect – individuals who live in poverty and who are unrepresented on the city council – either see their situation as unchangeable or as something that they are unable to affect. This directly evidences the utter disadvantages of our capitalist system. When wealth is too directly tied to political power, people without wealth do not have voices and so this disastrous cycle continues.

As Karl Marx noted in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, “[m]en make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past” (Marx). The way that individuals are socialized into institutions directly influences how accessible the state is to them and therefore determines how easily they are able to direct policies that benefit their way of life. Social structures can be tools for either political development for all or political stagnation in which the system in power continues to make archaic policies that only favors the top one percent.

My abilities – gained because of my privilege – have led me to achieve internships with the federal government, a national policy institute, a gubernatorial campaign, a state legislator, and a legal non-profit. As someone who yearns to work in public service and has easier access to government officials – I know that I will be able to work for policy change in the future. From a sociological perspective, however, I am concerned that future priorities will be skewed. For when I have lived in relative comfort for the duration of my life, will I truly be working for the benefit of those who need representation or to preserve my own upper middle-class way of life?

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