Published March 25, 2017 in the Ames Tribune
by Eileen Gebbie
I used to teach introductory sociology. Sociology is the study of humans in society, in groups. Sociologists, through observation and experiment, develop theories for why we act the way we do. At the time of my schooling, the emphasis within my department’s teaching program was on three major types of theory: social control, structural functionalism, and symbolic interactionism. Each seeks to address how and why societies have the institutions that they do: family, marriage, schools, health care, media, courts, police, unions, and the like.
In social control theories, institutions serve to control the majority of the population for the benefit of a minority. When I taught this to undergrads, I liked to draw a pyramid on the chalkboard (it was olden times), mark off a small triangle at the top, then label it “The Man v. The Rest of Us.” For example, denying people of color and LGBTQIA people full civil rights controls their ability to influence representation and policy as well as maintain the integrity of their families. In those cases, straight, white people, to their own benefit as they see it, control the life chances of others.
Structural functional theories consider the overt and covert functions of institutions. Elementary schools have the overt function of educating kids. The covert functions are/can be training in society’s norm and mores, health care, and nutritional support.
It took me a little time to come up with a good example for the final category, one that would resonate with students at a Midwestern university with a large Greek system and majority white student body. Symbolic interactionist theories suggest that our societies are a product not of large scale forces but every day interactions. So, I would ask them, let’s say the stereotype of white women in sororities is that they are dumb. The room would chuckle. Now, I would continue, imagine I believed that stereotype. Might that change, even without my realizing it, how I interact with white women wearing Greek letters in my classroom? And might my different treatment affect their academic performance? The room always went silent at that point. It became a lot easier to talk about racism after that lecture.
As I watch the unravelling of our national laws and policies put into place to feed the hungry, tend to the sick, protect soil and water, and promote peace rather than war, I ask myself the following questions: Who benefits the most from these changes? What are the functions that are named and those that will occur without being named? And what happened to the supporters in their individual lives to make them think this is the best way to be, as a nation?