Sociology versus Individualism

Have you ever wondered why sociological research and insights do not occupy a more prominent place in U.S. policy circles or in the American public consciousness?   Sociology’s performance in this regard may reflect the discipline’s efforts to promote (or avoid) approaches like public sociology that actively encourage engagement with the public.  Research about U.S. culture and individualism, however,  suggests two other reasons sociologists may get a chilly reception when we try to promote our research in the U.S. 

First, people are more receptive to information that is compatible with their understanding of how the world works.  In the U.S., where people are taught from a young age to believe in the primacy of individual effort, sociological insights and research that emphasize the constraints of social structure are unlikely to mesh very well with the values people have already formed.  If the U.S. is the land of opportunity, a country where you can accomplish anything as long as you try hard enough, then how could it possibly be a country where the playing field is not level and the efforts of some are rewarded more than the efforts of others?

Second, it seems that many Americans (particularly European Americans) are less motivated when asked to work with others for the common good than when they are asked to act as trail-blazing individuals.  To the extent that sociologists often emphasize a need to help others or the common good, their messages may also elicit less support than they might otherwise.

In some cases, there may be little sociologists can do to make our findings more palatable to people raised on a diet of American individualism.  When explaining how social structures (including gendered and racialized occupations and organizations) benefit some people and handicap others, it may not always be possible to frame the issues in the language of individualism.


Sociologists, however, may sometimes get a warmer welcome and greater assistance if they are careful to note how their findings are compatible with individualistic worldviews.  In the classroom, for instance, we often distinguish sociological insights from those of economists, psychologists, and the average citizen by focusing heavily on the role of structure. If we do this too much, it can give the impression that sociologists dismiss the importance of individual efforts.  President Obama was accused of making a similar argument when he commented, “If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that . . . Somebody else made that happen.”  This quotation, of course, takes on a much different meaning when it is placed in the context of Obama’s speech.


Sociological research on the importance of structures, however, is not meant to suggest that individual effort does not matter.  The message we really want to convey is that individual talents and efforts are only part of the story.  Their role in accomplishment cannot be properly understood without accounting for the role of social and structural factors.  For a great example of how one might highlight both structure and individual accomplishment, see the book, Outliers, by Malcom Gladwell.  Gladwell skillfully explains, for instance, that although Bill Gates is a really smart guy and has worked very hard, he probably would not have achieved the same outcomes if he had been born in a different year or a different place.

In an effort to avoid a premature dismissal of sociological research by a population that is inclined to dismiss extra-individual explanations, it may be helpful to distinguish more clearly between two types of arguments.


In some cases, we argue that individual efforts and social structures make separate contributions to a particular outcome.  Occupational mobility, for instance, is related to both individual effort and to changes in the occupational structure.  The portion of mobility that is due entirely to changes in the occupation structure is called structural mobility.  The argument that some portion of upward mobility is the direct result of structural changes (rather than effort) may always be a hard sell in the U.S. no matter how we describe it.  Most Americans probably do not want to believe that much of what they have “accomplished” is actually the result of being born into the right family, dumb luck, or social forces beyond their control.


In other cases, we wish to highlight how structures moderate the effect of individual efforts such that individuals exerting the same effort may have very different outcomes depending on the social and structural factors they encounter.  A recent article by Barbara Reskin, for instance, suggests that, on average, Blacks and Whites with similar abilities will have different outcomes in life because of the combined effects of racial discrimination in housing, schooling, employment, earnings, health care, credit markets, the criminal justice system, and other domains.


The distinction between these two types of explanations may be enough to influence how they are received in the U.S.  The first type of argument may be heard as, “You didn’t earn and don’t deserve the life you have.”  The second type of argument, in contrast, allows for the importance of individual effort while highlighting structural barriers that prevent individuals from making the most of their talents.  It could be paraphrased as, “Some Americans are not being treated fairly.”  This is a message Americans may find easier to swallow and one they may be more motivated to address in the name of individualism.
In short, if we want to get the attention of fellow citizens and policy makers and elicit their support, it may help to emphasize that although the organizational, occupational, and labor market structures we highlight are only part of the story, they are important because they can prevent individuals from achieving their potential.  Politically moderate and conservative Americans have fairly low levels of trust in science, and communicating with them may be difficult for all scientists.  Still, given the U.S. emphasis on individualism, sociologists who wish to reach a wide audience may need to be extra careful.  If many Americans don’t give the president the benefit of the doubt, we cannot expect that they will go out of their way to do so for us.

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