Thursday, November 13, 2008

failure of the sociological imagination

The topic in my social problems class today was drug abuse. We looked at the data, and tracked the trends, outlined the extent of the problem. Then we turned to the question of "why?" -- why so much more drug abuse in our region than in the past. [We live in the epicenter of the Oxycontin phenomenon.]

We looked at the issues of the availability of drugs, of the economic and social conditions, of the cultural attitudes encouraged by the media, the pharmaceutical industry, and the medical profession, that pills are a solution to most of life's problems (sexual problems - take Viagra, anxious in social situations - take Paxil, etc.).

One of the students in the class, Mary*, has worked on several local media projects and films about drug abuse in this region, and as a result has talked to a lot of people who have become entangled in abuse. Mary pointed out that the reason given by most of the people that she talked to was that they couldn't cope with the pressures and problems of their lives and took drugs to relieve the pressure, to be distracted, to forget about things for a while. Mary noted that this reason made her mad and disgusted. She didn't think it was a valid reason; that people were just weak and that should just learn to deal with things as she did. The other students in the class offered their agreement with Mary. They too viewed drug abuse as weakness and moral failing to which they were immune.

I asked the class to consider why it might be that more people today found themselves unable to cope with problems and pressure without drugs. I was hoping that they might think about ways in which the circumstances of living in the region had changed. I hoped they might think about how family situations and child rearing had changed (two working parents for example), how job opportunities had declined in the region, how out migration had reduced family networks, how political changes and budgetary cuts meant less in the way of social support, and finally how stagnating middle class and working class incomes and rising costs had eroded the standard of living.

Mary, however, suggested that circumstances had not changed that much, that it all boiled down to people being "weaker" today than they were in the past. People, she suggested weren't willing to "deal with" things as they were in the past (or as she implied as she was). The rest of the class vocally concurred with this view.

So I asked the class, if people were "weaker" today, how had that happened. What was it that had changed to make them weaker? This is the problem with us sociologists, we always think there is a reason for changes that they don't just come out of the air. Unfortunately Mary's response was, "it just happened. I don't don't want to call it evolved [we know from previous classes that Mary doesn't believe in biological evolution], it just happened." Mary suggested that people just naturally changed for the worse over time. Other students in the class offered agreement. There wasn't any reason for change, it just happened they all agreed. Society gets worse, people get worse. People today are weak -- except for us -- that's why they abuse drugs, was the unanimous opinion of my students.

We stopped the discussion at that point to see a short film made locally about Oxycontin abuse in the region. While I tinkered with the VCR, rewinding the film and cuing it up, I could hear Mary speaking quietly with the woman next to her. She was recounting her own history with the use of Paxil for the "terrible anxiety" she suffered after her baby was born, and how she "would not have been able to cope" without her doctor's help and the medication. I could tell by Mary's tone of voice that she did not consider her own inability to cope without medication to be a sign of weakness.

Despite my best efforts this is clearly a group of students who have not grasped the sociological imagination -- that ability to see connections between the biography of the individual and the broader social, economic, political and cultural trends that C. Wright Mills collectively called "history." Worse than that they seem to lack empathy for others, and the ability to see "there but for fortune go I."
*names changed to protect identity.


maryt/theteach said...

Well, Sue, I hope "Mary's" lack of empathy did mean that the whole class was lacking. I hope this doesn't sound prejudiced but since "Mary" doesn't believe in biological evolution she is probably a religious fundamentalist and I have found that some of that ilk tend to be very judgmental and blame people who "have" to take modern psychopharmacologic drugs. I don't think people are weaker I just believe the availability of these marvelous drugs have made life a little easier when it comes to coping with anxiety, depression, etc.

maryt/theteach said...

Sue, didn't for did

Sue said...

mary -- love the new photo -great glasses! It's a very small class of five young women, and on this issue (the only issue all semester) they all seemed in self-righteously smug agreement: substance abuse was a problem that other, weaker people experienced, not them. I was hoping for them to understand how the line between socially sanctioned use of medications (like Paxil, Xanax, Vicodin, Oxycontin, etc.) and "abuse" of the very same drugs was a very fine, and very slippery line.

Jessica G said...


Hearing stories like this make me want to take classes in person rather than online!

I come from a middle class family in the suburbs, my parents never divorced (rare for my generation) and attended one of the best high schools in our region. Given the solid "roots" that my parents established for me, you wouldn't think I have done some of the things that I have... from crack binges to meth parties. I wasn't weak against them at first. I was in full control.

I was having "fun" with friends. A year later, I woke up and asked what the hell I was doing to myself? Admitting I had a problem was honestly what gave me my power to overcome them....My troubles then have helped to mold me into the strong woman I am today.

Geez..I wish I could have been in there. :)