Sociology Commencement Address

Thursday, May 22, 2014 | Rae Lesser Blumberg

Jefferson Statue

"May you live in interesting times”:  It was a curse to the Chinese when China was a traditional, slow-changing agrarian society; for them, change usually meant chaos.  For us it’s a challenge – we eat change for breakfast and we have to – we live in a world of accelerating technological and other kinds of change, amid growing uncertainty.

I suggest that your major, Sociology, can help you in this fast-changing world and that it’s like an all-terrain vehicle that aids you to navigate both the spectacular scenery and the perilous pitfalls of a world that is being transformed at dizzying speed. But your Sociology major also enables you to explore the greatest range of fascinating problems.  In other words, Sociology encompasses everything from the macro to the micro levels of society and the connections between them.  It considers the “big picture” issues such as war and peace and inequality and equality, all in the context of a globalizing world economy and world ecology.  But it also considers the taken-for-granted reality of everyday life, what we might call the “Sociology of Seinfeld,” the micro level of how we live.  More importantly, it illuminates the links between these two realms, between the larger forces and your own day-to-day life as well as ultimate destiny.  

In fact, one of the best-known statements in Sociology is the late C. Wright Mills’ dictum that we live our lives “at the intersection of history and social structure.”  Both history and social structure affect your life chances, whether you’re aware of them or not.  Thanks to your Sociology major, you’re more aware than the average person – and this will help you to get ahead of the curve.   Indeed, some of you might make history or help change the social structure, for the better, of course, perhaps exercising your “sociological imagination” (another of Mills’ well-known expressions). More on this later.

To begin, let’s consider history: As I tell my students, visualize a “history box” with at least three important variables inside. First, you’ll have learned the crucial importance of the state of the economy at critical stages of your life; for example, the time when you first use your new diploma to enter the labor market.  If the economy is good when you graduate, you can go boldly and quickly to enter the labor force; jobs will be plentiful.  But neither the economy nor the job market have fully recovered from the Great Recession. And opportunities for this year’s grads have been described as not so terrific. So you might use what you have learned in Sociology – and stay in school as a part-time or full-time grad student, or take a year to be go back-backing or Teach for America. Or take two years and join the Peace Corps (as I did – and it totally transformed my life).  Taking this “time out” when the job market is poor is a very good idea. This is because the state of the economy when you enter the labor market affects not just your own prospects but the lifelong success and earnings of your entire graduation and labor market cohort.

Second, technology is also very important and it is changing so fast that without you your parents might never program or operate half the equipment that seems to multiply while we sleep.  Not only the new knowledge and innovations but also where they are developed and where they are produced will impact your lives.  So, too, will social movements, the third variable in our “history box.” The keystone movements include those for greater equality and tolerance – civil rights, the women’s movement and the more recent emergence of an expanded definition of equality that includes gay rights and gay marriage as well as disability rights.  But there are also movements that promote less equality and greater intolerance and even terror – and Sociology again gives you a handle on sorting out these issues as well as how they might affect you and what actions you can take to cope and come out ahead. 

C. Wright Mills considered social structure, our “second box,” to be just as important as history:  Your place in the social pyramid or the larger pyramid of political economy also has a profound effect.  How carefully you “chose your parents for social class,” your race/ethnicity, gender, nationality, religion, education, etc. – all these affect your life chances.  So, too, does the fact that the U.S. is moving into a new information age in a globalizing world.  Whether the new information economy jobs are multiplying more in Northern Virginia than in Southern India could have lifelong consequences for your future.  An active and well-trained sociological imagination helps to keep you ahead of this curve, too. 

But let me stress: you already have accomplished much in getting here today and many of you will go on to accomplishments that will affect history or the social structure.  

Whether you end up in graduate school, law school, business school, med school or a career in the near future, your Sociology major has given you a “sociological imagination.”  J. K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter books, emphasized the importance of imagination in her 2008 commencement address at Harvard. She decried those who prefer not to exercise their imaginations, “never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are…clos[ing] their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them personally.” 

Sociology has given you tools to stretch your imaginations and also to cope with today’s “interesting times,” regardless of your ultimate profession or occupation.  As you march from the beauty of Mr. Jefferson’s University, the only UNESCO World Heritage university site in the U.S., to what I hope will be a bright future (and choosing the University of Virginia gives you a leg up on a good future), your Sociology major should be a help.  It will aid you to observe power, analyze cultural practices and organizational patterns.  It will help you to meet the multiple challenges of living in interesting times – and to prevail.  Congratulations and good luck!