Most Americans probably agree that we enjoy a great amount of freedom. And yet perhaps we have less freedom than we think, because many of our choices are influenced by our —a group of people who share a common culture and social organization, and who live in a defined geographic area. Perhaps we are not as distinctively individualistic as we believe we are.
For example, consider the right to vote. The secret ballot is one of the most cherished principles of American democracy. We vote in secret so that our choice of a candidate is made freely and without fear of punishment. That is all true, but it is also possible to guess the candidate for whom any one individual will vote if enough is known about the individual. This is because our choice of a candidate is affected by many aspects of our social backgrounds and, in this sense, is not made as freely as we might think.
To illustrate this point, consider the 2020 presidential election between Democrat Joe Biden and Republican Donald Trump. Suppose a room is filled with 100 randomly selected voters from that election. Nothing is known about them except that they were between 18 and 24 years of age when they voted. Because exit poll data found that Biden won 65% of the vote from people in this age group (CNN.com Exit Polls), a prediction that each of these 100 individuals voted for Biden would be correct about 65 times and incorrect only 35 times. Someone betting $1 on each prediction would come out ahead, even though the only thing known about the people in the room is their age.
Young people were especially likely to vote for the Biden-Harris ticket in 2020, while white voters tended to vote for Donald Trump in comparison to BIPOC voters. These patterns illustrate the influence of our social backgrounds on many aspects of our lives. Wikimedia Commons – public domain.
Now let’s suppose we have a room filled with 100 randomly selected white men from Alabama who voted in 2020. We know only three things about them: their race, gender and state of residence. Because exit poll data found that 74% of white men in Alabama voted for Donald Trump (CNN.com Exit Polls), a prediction can be made with fairly good accuracy that these 100 people most likely voted for Trump. Even though young people in the United States and white men from Alabama had every right and freedom under our democracy to vote for whomever they wanted in 2020, they still tended to vote for a particular candidate because of the influence of their age (in the case of the young people) or of their race, gender and state of residence (white men from Alabama).
Yes, Americans have freedom, but our freedom to think and act is constrained at least to some degree by society’s standards and expectations and by the many aspects of our social backgrounds. This is true for the kinds of important beliefs and behaviors just discussed, and it is also true for less important examples. For instance, think back to the last class you attended. How many of the women wore evening gowns? How many of the men wore skirts? Students are “allowed” to dress any way they want in most colleges and universities, but notice how few students, if any, dress in the way just mentioned. They do not dress that way because of the strange looks and even negative reactions they would receive.
Similarly, think back to the last time you rode in an elevator. Why did you not face the back? Why did you not sit on the floor? Why did you not start singing? Children can do these things and “get away with it,” because they look cute doing so, but adults risk looking odd. Because of that, even though we are “allowed” to act strangely in an elevator, we do not.
The basic point is that society shapes our attitudes and behavior even if it does not determine them altogether. We still have freedom, but that freedom is limited by society’s expectations. Moreover, our views and behavior depend to some degree on our in society, which includes our social and physical traits, such as our gender, race, social class, religion, and so forth, deemed to be important by our society. Thus, society as a whole and our own social backgrounds affect our attitudes and behaviors. Our social backgrounds also affect two other important parts of our lives, including our , which are important decisions one makes about their life according to their interests, opinions, and actions, and our , defined as our chances (whether we have a good chance or little chance) of being healthy, wealthy, and well educated and, more generally, of living a good, happy life.
The influence of our , which includes the interactions between humans in an immediate physical setting, is the fundamental understanding that the field of sociology aims to present. Thus, can be defined as the scientific study of human social behavior and social organization. At the heart of sociology is the , the view that our social backgrounds influence our attitudes, behavior, life choices, and life chances. In this regard, we are not just individuals but rather social beings deeply enmeshed in society. Although we all differ from one another in many respects, we share with many other people basic aspects of our social backgrounds, perhaps especially gender, race and ethnicity, and social class. These shared qualities make us more similar to each other than we would otherwise be.
Does society totally determine our beliefs, behavior, life choices and life chances? No. Individual differences still matter, and disciplines such as psychology are also needed to gain the most complete understanding of human action and beliefs. But if individual differences matter, so do society and the social backgrounds from which we come. Even the most individual attitudes and behaviors, such as the voting decisions discussed earlier, are influenced to some degree by our social backgrounds and, more generally, by the society to which we belong.
a group of people who live within a defined territory and who share a culture
the social and physical traits of an individual, such as gender, race, social class and religion, deemed to be important by their society
an important decision which one makes about their life according to their interests, opinions, and actions
our chances (whether we have a good chance or little chance) of being healthy, wealthy, and well educated and, more generally, of living a good, happy life
interaction between humans in an immediate physical setting
the scientific study of human behavior and social organization within society
the view that our social backgrounds influence our attitudes, behavior, life choices and life chances