Academic journal article Sociological Focus

North Central Sociological Association Presidential Address. I Didn't Build That: Life Chances, Life Course, Habitus, and Dumb Luck-A Life in Sociology

Academic journal article Sociological Focus

North Central Sociological Association Presidential Address. I Didn't Build That: Life Chances, Life Course, Habitus, and Dumb Luck-A Life in Sociology

Article excerpt

'There is no private life that is not determined by a wider public life.'

George Eliot (1819-1880)

"It is a sad fate for a man to die too well known to everybody else and still unknown to himself."

Francis Bacon (1561-1626)

The sociological imagination "is a quality of mind that seems most dramatically to promise an understanding of the intimate realities of ourselves in connection with larger social realities."

C. Wright Mills (1916-1962)

The quotation from George Eliot, novelist and friend of Herbert Spencer, reminds us that regardless of what we create, we do not create it all on our own, uninfluenced by our surroundings. This was the sentiment President Obama was attempting to convey in 2012 when he said,

Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business - you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn't get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet. The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative but also because we do things together. (Zom 2012)

The out-of-context quotation, "If you've got a business - you didn't build that," was a boon to Mitt Romney's Republican presidential campaign, spawning countless ads, t-shirts, and cartoons. The quotation and its out-of-context use made me ask whether people really were so unreflective, so out of tune with the reality of their lives, that they failed to understand the ways in which their society provided the background that helped make their efforts successful. How could so many people be living out Bacon's "sad fate," failing to understand themselves? Did that many people really lack Mills' sociological imagination; did they not understand that their successes depended on the successes of previous generations and of the people and businesses that surrounded them? And then it struck me how rarely we sociologists make that link explicitly.

Although Eliot and Mills remind us that our biographies are deeply influenced by the social conditions in which we find ourselves, most of our work as sociologists does not make the direct link to personal biographies. Often when reading about theory, we do focus on the person- Marx, Weber, Dürkheim, Simmel, Gilman, Addams, DuBois-including a discussion of personal biography. We also have a minor tradition of personal biographies of sociologists (e.g., Berger 1990). But, in my experience, such personal biographies only rarely or very indirectly invoke sociological ideas and conceptual analyses in understanding the details of those biographies.

This gap in our work seems a bit odd, since, as C. Wright Mills famously noted: 'The most fruitful distinction with which the sociological imagination works is between 'the personal troubles of milieu' and 'the public issues of social structure'" (1959: 8). Troubles are local-tied to individuals and their milieux. Public issues have to do with the broader social organization within which and by which the many milieux are themselves interrelated and structured and which ultimately shape individuals and their approach to their worlds. The sociological imagination involves seeing the personal as a product of history and social structure.

Typically, we sociologists focus on the historical, on the structural side of C. Wright Mills' equation, on the public issues of social structure, though, of course, many sociologists take a constructivist approach focused on meaning. There is also a long tradition of studying the link between social structure and various aspects of personality. We rarely write a straight sociological biography, authors attempting to explain and understand how sociology informs their lives. I hope this paper will be a little bit different; in the pages that follow, I plan to discuss what I see as crucial theoretical concepts by touching on my life and work and to accomplish this without its becoming an exercise in radical narcissism. …

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