Saturday, May 19, 2012

AS LEVEL: Do people have choices?

Individuals are often bombarded by social choices in our everyday lives. However, the choices they make are not always entirely to their own liking, but are often made under the pressure and influence of external sociological factors. This stand is claimed by the sociological theories that take a structural view. This side believes that actions and choices of an individual is constrained and determined by the external factors of society such as one’s race and social class. On the contrary, the interpretive side of sociology challenges the structural view, stating that individuals are free to choose and act as they are. Interpretivists argued that the social constrains just shapes how an individual would react and the choice is still up to the individual.

In society today, money is more important than ever. Marxism proved that the monopolization and polarization of the sectors of production has produced an unequal portion of bourgeoisie and proletariats in society. The proletariats have few or no control over the social actions and choices they engage in because according to Marxism, the structure of society is economically based. The bourgeoisie exploit and oppress the lower class for altruistic reasons. Even if the conflict of interest between two parties arises and shows a glimpse of change, the bourgeoisie triumphs almost every time since they own much of the power and assets in society. As a result, the rich become richer and the poor become poorer. Therefore, it is reasoned by Marxists that individuals in the working class in particular, have no choices due to the economical factor.

Other than the economical factor, Marxism also proposed that individuals are helpless towards the fact that the capitalists impose propagandas that promotes false class consciousness. False class consciousness is consciousness of one's social class or economic rank in society. From the perspective of Marxist theory, it refers to the self-awareness, or lack thereof, of a particular class; its capacity to act in its own rational interests; or its awareness of the historical tasks implicit to it. The capitalists lie and manipulate the media to convey fabricated messages to the people to further indoctrinate false class consciousness and keep the working class disillusioned to being able to rise up out of their current place into a higher place if they work harder. This is a seamless excuse for the alienation, also a key concept of Marxism, felt by the working class creating products for the capitalists. Therefore, it is proven that individuals in the working class are controlled by the capitalists and have no life-choices.

Other than Marxism, feminism is also a theory that claims that individuals, in this case, females are oppressed and forced to submit to the higher authority. The ultimate oppression is often stressed by the feminists claiming that the structure of the patriarchal society is unfair to women. They claim that the economy, the mass media and the core of all socialization, the family, play important parts in spreading mainstream ideas of how women should act. Their life choices are already fixed and hard to break out of. For instance, although women are ‘free’ to work and hire nannies to care for their children, it is still always frowned upon in these modern times. A mother who does so is perceived as ‘cold’ or ‘not nurturing’ when she may be struggling to make ends meet.

Furthermore, supporting the claim that individuals have no choice is the functionalists. Talcott Parsons believe that individuals act what’s best for the society to maintain the equilibrium and not of the individual’s personal choice. The social equilibrium consists of all individuals and the institutions of society such as the legal system and schools shifting frequently to fit society’s constant change. For example, the syllabus of the education system today is very different compared to the older education syllabus. ‘Home Education’ or ‘Living Skills’ that teaches cooking and basic carpentry are introduced into the timetable for the modern children because technology and the way of life are very different nowadays. But it wasn’t included in the syllabus in the older days since the skills learnt in the particular subjects were already integrated into the chores the children actively participated in at home. Although, this also involves the idea that acting for the society is also beneficial to the individuals themselves, but the individuals are nonetheless acting out of altruism which is not a choice.

French sociologist, Emile Durkheim saw the human as having two sides, one that is egoistic which looks out for oneself and the other that is altruistic which acts with the society’s best interest is still relevant till today. He believed that individuals are divided, the belief that a human being is comprised of an antagonism between the instinctual desires of the human animal and the desire to follow and obey societal pressures to maintain self-control. For instance, if a person has been murdered by a serial killer, the victim’s family is not in power to avenge his death by murder but the serial killer should be brought to court and trialed for his crime. This is because the formal social rules have set a boundary on how much freedom a person may be granted. The constrain is the altruistic side that share consensus with the society that moral behavior is still ‘valuable’ in society, therefore leaving individuals with less or no choices in life.

The theory of over-socialized concept of men by Dennis Wrong is one of the many points that prove people do have choices in life. With the many sprouting theories that claim people are controlled within the structure of society, Wrong proves his concept of men not acting how they are socialized by an everyday example, crime. Criminals were too, brought up normally and socialized with the same moral values, but somehow, they don’t act accordingly to the society’s norms. They deviate from the normal behavior and act only on their desires. This is a sole choice from the individuals.

One of the theories that claim that individuals have choices is Harold Garfinkle’s theory of Ethnomethodology. It states that how individuals shouldn’t be considered ‘cultural dopes’ and how they are actually taking part actively in interpreting and making sense of the social world. It is therefore, in the choice of the individual to ‘interpret’ a social phenomenon in a particular way and react accordingly. The facts and characteristics of a social situation ‘documented’ is derived from past social situations and then kept in mind for future references. Then, whenever needed, the mind tries to find the underlying pattern for the previous social facts and the current situation faced. When the underlying pattern is recognized and conversant, they would form ‘accounts’ and be saved permanently. Both past and present build each up and this would be the process said by Garfinkle. With this theory, people have choices because they make their own life choices by interpreting how it is possible. One example of how people have choices due to individual interpretation is the counselor experiment conducted by Garfinkle. The students chose to believe that the answers of ‘yes’ or ‘no’ were given by professional counselors, when in fact the answers were randomly picked and had no relations to the problems the students had.

George Herbert Mead’s sociological theory, Symbolic Interactionism also relates how individuals create their own social choices. Each individual view and assess themselves regularly through the eyes of the ‘generalized other’. They can try to perceive what is expected of their social role and try to live to the expectations or abandon the society’s views and just act accordingly to what they feel. Individuals also look up to the ‘specific other’ that is chosen by themselves to reflect and learn from. The ‘specific other’ shows the way of society and reflects the norms and moral values. Thus, individuals have the choice to follow or deviate from the norms.

Lastly, Max Weber’s social action theory also explains that the individuals have the choice to choose. The example would be the Protestant Ethnic Theory that proves that every social actor in society choose to be good and are not made so. It is meaning behind the choice the social actors make that has the greatest impact. Moreover, the social action theory also speaks on how social actors put up a ‘play’ on ‘stage’ when there are ‘audiences’. The choices are chosen to be presented in a particular way because the social actors are ‘acting’ for society. The need to appear in consensus with what society perceives as normal would be just external but what happen ‘behind the stage’ are all up to the social actors preferences.

Since both sides provide strong evidence and points, it is safe to conclude that people do have choices in life but within a limited boundary set by the structure of society and the norms. Individuals choose, but they often make the decisions that are beneficial to the society and him because socialization has internalized the norms. Individuals want to fit in and feel integrated to their society. So, the choices of individuals are driven by a balance between their desires and the structure of society.


  1. 1. Marxism is a theory/ideology. It doesn’t prove anything. The application of Marxism, maybe. But not Marxism itself. Try ‘Marxism theorises that…’
    2. ‘monopolisation’
    3. ‘polarisation’
    4. ‘the proletariat has’
    5. ‘Even if…a conflict’?
    6. ‘Therefore, it is reasoned by Marxists that’
    ^ this annoys me. Try ‘Marxists therefore reason that…’ or ‘and hence Marxists reason that…’
    7. ‘…that individuals, in particular the working class…’
    8. ‘propaganda’. Singular.
    9. ‘False class consciousness is the consciousness’
    10. ‘and to keep the working class disillusioned to prevent them from being able to rise up out of their current place to a higher place, given hard work and dedication’
    11. Once again, there is no proof. ‘Therefore it is proven’? No, no.
    12. ‘socialisation’

    ...need I continue? I think the angle from which you looked at the question is a bit odd, by the way.
    ...on second thoughts, I think the question itself is weird for soc. It leans more towards psych.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Thank you for your comments :)
      I am only a A-levels student so my knowledge on sociology is very shallow. My PC auto-corrects all my words so there may be a few tweaks!
      And to straighten things out, this topic is a legitimate AS question :)
      Sorry :( Will try better!

  2. Hey, umm responding to the anon above,

    6. The statement made by Chee Shu Yee sounds grammatically correct and she is under no obligation to use other terms which may sound "neater"

    And why is this a weird sociology question? I think it's a perfectly valid sociology question as it is trying to give an answer as to whether people can make any 'true' choices given the pressures society places on them. It could also be considered a psychology question, but as many contemporary social psychologists find, solely reasoning out questions based on a single discipline (sociology/psychology) is insufficient. A more holistic attempt is required in which you gauge the innate psyche, societal pressures and the events that transpired to cause said pressures in society. This is essential in order to work out, if not the true reason, then the most accurate or the reason closest to the truth for why things occur.

    1. You're absolutely right. I (I will stick with I) did not demand for her to change it, nor did I threaten anyone about anything. I was merely suggesting a nicer-sounding way of phrasing her point. Ignore me, for all I care...
      This topic definitely lies across the two disciples. However, if one were to put a finger as to which one it directly fell under, it would be psychology. Only in psychology would you be able to actually answer the question. In soc, you'd just be skirting around the issue as Chee Shu Yee did here. I'm not trying to insult or offend her, as I say this - I really do mean that, by giving her this question for soc, she has a disadvantage in answering the question as the question is really quite a stupid one.
      And honestly, I was just trying to correct the mistakes. I know spellcheck does weird things to your typing. I may have sounded a bit mean, but that's just because I couldn't be bothered to type nicer. I always sound like that. It's got nothing to do with you. :)