HORSE SHOE, North Carolina – Coined in 1959 by C. Wright Mills, the sociological imagination is a term that describes the kind of radical insight the discipline of sociology can offer. Mills suggests that personal problems, from alcoholism to eating disorders, ultimately reflect kinks in the structure of society. While it is up to the individual to make the connection between micro and macro issues, perceiving global poverty in this light could foment social change.
A Kurdish woman and her three young children stand at a Turkish military checkpoint near Kobani, a Syrian town ravished by political discord. Their only possessions are contained within a turquoise JanSport book bag and the youngest daughter is dressed in several layers of pajamas.
They are poor, hungry, and isolated. Conflict has displaced nearly 11 million other Syrians, both internally and externally. And yet, millions in the U.S. lacking the sociological imagination continue to blame the Kurdish woman, rather than the country, time period, social norms, violence, or other circumstances.
Susan Fiske, a professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University, has designed a neuroimaging test that registers people’s reaction to images. In most test subjects, photos of homelessness, child poverty, and hunger stimulate regions of the brain most closely associated with hatred.
After studying the attitudes surrounding the poor for 12 years, Fiske easily concludes that the “most negative prejudices” surround low-income individuals.
“Americans react to the poor with disgust,” Fiske said, “And once you’ve dehumanized a person, it’s easier to neglect him.”
This neglect is personified in the many nuances of American culture. As a country driven by capitalism, it is a common misconception in the U.S. that the world’s poor are incapable of managing financial resources or are intrinsically less driven than well-to-do counterparts.
As suggested by John Dovidio, a Yale University psychology professor, prejudice only increases during taxing economic times.
“Our society is based on the idea that if you work hard, you get more, and if you have less, you deserve less,” he said.
Even more concerning are the prejudices explored in a report written by Nicholas Carnes and John Holbein of Duke University. The piece entitled, “Are Politicians Prejudiced against the Poor?,” concludes that the U.S. government is “more responsive” to affluence, with policy decisions benefiting the upper class more so than not.
Biases found here could explain why the current foreign aid budget is less than one percent of four trillion dollars.
As such, the large majority of Americans are not adopting the sociological imagination; they are failing to see that the personal problem of poverty is actually a result of structural issues in the framework of society. Most lack, as Mills wrote, the “capacity to shift from one perspective to another … from examination of a single family to comparative assessment of the national budgets of the world.”
With this in mind, the Kurdish woman, tightly clenching the hands of her children, is not to blame for the abject poverty she faces. Her family is joined by nearly half of the world’s population, crippled by insufficiency because of circumstance, not choice.
– Lauren Stepp