Turning our sociological imagination on.

The main argument Mills made in the first chapter of “Sociological Imagination” is the connection between individual experiences in daily life and changes in social structure. The sociological imagination is a mental ability that enables us to see this connection. Mills also suggests that seeing the distinction “between ‘the personal troubles of milieu’ and ‘the public issues of social structure” is the essential tool of the sociological imagination. Only when we clearly distinguish personal troubles and public issues can we see the connection between individuals’ experiences and social structures. Personal troubles are private problems that can be explained by personal characteristics; public issues are problems of collective concern. Mills used unemployment as an example to illustrate the differences between the two. He said, “In a city of 100,000, only one is unemployed, that is his personal trouble…in a nation of 50 million employees, 15 million people are unemployed, that is an issue” (Mills, 1959).  We may feel empathy when we read this example as we are experiencing an economic recession.

Last Friday’s headline story of New York Times (“Jobless Rate Hits 7.2%, a 16-Year High”) reports the unemployment rate rapidly increased from 2007 to 2008, from 4.9% to 7.2%. The number of unemployed people increased to 11.1 million at the end of 2008. This news story interprets the recent unemployment crisis as a public issue, as do most other observers. Politicians, economists, and citizens all have called for public policies to resolve the crisis. If politicians, economists, CEOs, and citizens all recognize unemployment as a public issue, does it mean that they possess a sociological imagination? If not, what is the difference between all of them and people who have a sociological imagination, such as sociologists?

The report suggests a consensus that the recent problems with unemployment are something more than personal troubles. How, then, might we interpret about other problems related to unemployment, for example, alcohol abuse and mental disorders? Do we think these are personal troubles or public issues? Some may argue that alcohol abuse and mental disorders result from personal or psychological traits. Before we make this conclusion, here is a study (“Unemployment and Mental Health: Understanding the Interactions Among Gender, Family Roles, and Social Class”*) at which we may like to take a look. Artazcoz et al. (2004) use data from the 1994 Catalonian Health Survey to study the relationships between unemployment and mental health consequences. (The Catalonian Health Survey is a cross-sectional survey conducted in a region in northeastern of Spain called Catalonia.) Their study shows that unemployment impacts negatively on peoples’ mental health. The study also found that gender, family roles, and social class mediate the effect of unemployment on mental health. The findings should match our common sense. We may not be too surprised hearing that an unemployed person experiences depression, mental disorders or abuses alcohol. Then, how does the sociological imagination help us to understand this phenomenon? The sociological imagination enables us to see what social structures impact an issue. Can we imagine what social structures may be related to the issue of negative mental health consequence of unemployment? Can we see the connection between individual suffering and social changes?

The headline story I mentioned above is based on the newly released employment summary from U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. There are some interesting results not included in the news story. For example, the summary reports that the unemployment rate for adult men was 7.2 percent; adult women 5.9 percent; whites 6.6 percent; blacks 11.9 percent; Hispanics 9.2 percent; and Asians 5.1 percent in December 2008. Why are these rates different for different ethno-racial and gender groups?

Facing the economic recession and labor market contraction, we can start to use our sociological imagination to understand things happening around us.

Please read the following reports and article to gain more and detailed information.

– Employment Situation Summary:http://www.bls.gov/news.release/empsit.nr0.htm

* Artazcoz, Lucía et al. 2004. “Unemployment and Mental Health: Understanding the Interactions Among Gender, Family Roles, and Social Class.” American Journal of Public Health 94 (1) Pp.82-88. (You can access this article via VU library website: http://www.library.vanderbilt.edu/heard/artdb.shtml)


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6 responses to “Turning our sociological imagination on.

  1. jjsong

    Great job Tammy!!!!!
    I like the link you made with unemployment and a definition of “social problem”, which gives the sense of the outside force (“social fact”) that is beyond personal control.

    But why is it that “the unemployment rate for adult men was 7.2 percent; [but for] adult women 5.9 percent”? Aren’t women less privileged on the job market?

  2. 03daniellaroue

    Women are not necessarily “less privileged” on the job market. There are many other factors such as average experience, job preferences, and other factors that contribute to the differences in labor force outcomes for men and women.

    Even beyond this fact, unemployment rates taken at face value are not necessarily a good measurement of employment “equality”. The unemployment rate is a function of both how many people within a group do not have a job and how many of these people are actively searching for a job. If a large number of women are not employed but most of them are not currently actively searching for a job, the BLS unemployment rate would be low; therefore, one most not only look at the unemployment rate, but also at the forces affecting women’s and men’s decision to search for employment.

  3. 03christinedouthwaite

    I think the release of this information could not come at a better time. Not only is it a new year, but we are about to enter a new era, politically, economically, and socially. What was once understood to be impossible is not only occurring tomorrow (with Obama’s inauguration), but with it brings a wave of political, economic, and social reform. With our new President, I feel that the unemployment issue is going to be examined very closely, especially with how it relates to the current economy.

    In my opinion, the rising unemployment rate isn’t necessarily a bad thing. While people are out of work, the increase in unemployment can be explained through a number of other reasons. An increase in the population of people available to work and advancements in medicine and technology are positive signs of development in our country that could contribute to a higher unemployment rate. If people stay healthy longer, they can work for a longer period of time, and the cycle of job replacement can be drawn out. As the baby boomers age, the children of the baby boomers are entering and graduating from college, searching for jobs, and increasing the number of people that are available to work, also causing a rise in unemployment. As our knowledge of technology expands and we can find ways to incorporate new technology in the workplace, jobs once done by humans can now be done by machines, again reducing the need for as many jobs.

    Regarding the differences in gender employment rates and ethno-racial employment rates, I agree with Danielle (the post above mine) that unemployment rates should not be viewed as a measure of equality. While you can compare the unemployment rates between the different groups, is it really saying anything to compare them to each other? Isn’t comparing the unemployment rate of hispanics to the unemployment rate of asians like comparing apples and oranges? Couldn’t be possible that there are just as many hispanics employed as asians, but the discrepancy arises simply because the population of hispanics and asians in our nation are very different?

  4. 03rachelhaltiwanger

    In the article that we had to read in the Contexts Reader called “from summer camps to glass ceilings: the power of experiments,” it described one experiment whose theory could be applied to explain why different ethnicities have different unemployment rates. The experiment described a standardized testing situation in which white students and black students were both given a test- when the stakes were low, both groups of students scored about the same (therefore, the researchers concluded that they had a similar intelligence level) but when the stakes were high, the black students scored significantly lower. This could be applied to the job market- looking for a job/succeeding in a career has fairly high stakes, and if the theory stands that people groups who are traditionally discriminated against do worse in high stakes situations, that could explain the discrepancy in the unemployment rates.

    Also, to add to what Danielle said about unemployment rates- I completely agree that the unemployment rate is not always a good measurement of job equality. Women who are housewives or stay at home moms do not get calculated in the unemployment rate, even if they’ve recently been laid off, as long as they are not actively searching for a new job.

  5. Tammy C

    I agree with Daniel and Rachel that the unemployment rate is not a “perfect” measurement for job equality. And you are right: the adult female labor participation rate (female labor force/ total female population) is about 8% less than adult male labor participation rate, according to the employment situation summary. To examine gender and race equity in job markets we need to apply precise social scientific methods. But thinking about why women seem to be less vulnerable to unemployment in job markets is a good way to practice our sociological imagination. I have a theory we can apply to this situation. Because of the patriarchal structures, women are disadvantaged in job markets. The proportion of part time workers among female workers is significantly higher than the similar proportion among male workers. Also, there is a gendered wage gap. On average female worker get lower pay than male workers who are in the same position. Therefore, facing the economic recession, employers may tend to keep part-time positions and have female workers (instead of men) to save on personnel costs. However, it does not mean that women are more advantaged than men. In fact, it means that female workers are exploited even more significantly than they used to be. The accuracy of my theory needs to be tested by precise scientific methods.

  6. Jenn Lena

    Two relevant pieces of research I can’t help but add to this discussion:

    1. BBC reports that the “redundancy rate” is almost double that of (British) men, up 2.3% in the last year . Lost jobs are found in the hospitality and retail sectors, where more women than men work.

    2. Only 6% of full professors of physics are women, and this is unlikely to be fully a result of self-selection into the profession (that is, it isn’t simply a result of fewer women wanting to be physics professors). Women professors also make more compromises in their personal lives (with marriage and children) than their male peers.

    Both these pieces of research suggest a gendered labor market effect.