When the Sociological becomes Personal

My job as a professor really gives me a great opportunity to talk to folks about the sociology that we live through everyday. This past week in my Sociology of the African-American Experience we had some involved conversations about Black men, unemployment, and culture. We, like good sociologists, talked about the structural issues associated with getting ahead, the cultural dimensions of what it takes to keep jobs, and the ways employers view urban Black men. The conversation was maginificant, but when I asked students what could be done to shift Black men’s employment opportunities, it felt like all our suggestions were like tossing starfish into the ocean one by one. That however is not the biggest issues of when the sociological becomes personal, it is when we have to individually make sense of larger sociological problems like unemployment, etc.

This morning I was leaving the train station and watched a man struggle down the steps with a large suitcase. As he descended the stairs clumsily, I saw a man about 45 or so begin to descend next to him, but not heading down the stairs. As I watched, the second man reached his hand into the pocket of the man with the suitcase. For a minute the men were so close I thought, wait they must know each other. Then the man with the suitcase felt his hand and looked over and noticed it was a pickpocket attempt. Immediately the man with the suitcase was like, “Hey!” and took the other man’s hand out of his pocket. The guy who was attempting the pickpocket buzzed down the steps and tried to divert attention by yelling, “Don’t block the stairs again man!”

As an onlooker I had like ten things going through simultaneously.Here were a few, “what would I have done if it was my pocket?” I wondered, “Why didn’t you say anything?” “Should you call the cops?” “What good would calling the cops do?” When the issues of the world become personal, are we able to understand and contextualize behavior or do we go back to saying folks who do crime, etc. are just deviant? It’s too easy to dismiss the situation and suggest that the offender is just a bad apple. It’s also too simple to say that there are no jobs. In both cases, we know NOTHING about the life of the guy who attempted the pickpocket. But I think when things become personal, we too easily forget about the context that informs the behaviors folks employ to “make it.” In many conversations among friends and colleagues, over the years, I’ve heard folks provide context to all sorts of actions but when it came to their personal well being being threatened discussions began to sound like AM talk radio. When the sociological becomes personal, what is your first reaction… and your second?

Filed under: Sociology, The Train

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