I always knew, even before I applied to college, that I wanted to be a mass communications major. At UC Berkeley (where I went) the major required a choice of several pre-requisites. On a lark, I decided to take Sociology 1.
As a major portion of our grade, we needed to do some sort of social research project. I was new to the Bay Area and surprised to see how many panhandlers congregated near the BART stations in San Francisco. So I decided to research commuters’ attitudes towards giving money to them.
My classmate and I put together a one-page survey that collected some broad demographic data (age, sex, general income level, etc.) and then asked several questions about donation habits. Then we set out for a BART station to distribute our survey to evening commuters.
Our goal was to give a survey to everyone we could, but we also had some sense of not wanting to skew the data we collected by accidentally giving the survey to, say, more men than women. So we tried to passively make sure we were giving it out in relatively equal numbers to both. And from 5pm to 6pm that was easy. But once 6pm rolled around, all of a sudden we noticed that we couldn’t find many women to give it to. Male commuters vastly outnumbered them. We administered the survey on two evenings, and both times made the same observation.
Nonetheless we persevered, and managed to collect 100 usable surveys, of which 50 ultimately turned out to be from men and 50 from women. But then we noticed another gender difference:
Of those 50 men, 27 reported earning more than $50,000 a year.
Of those 50 women: 6.
And this is why I became a sociologist. Because while I firmly believe that people are all individuals capable of free will, it is clear that there are unseen forces that affect their decisions. Sociology is about revealing what those forces are.
The paper we wrote is now lost to history (or lost in an inaccessible attic somewhere, which is essentially the same thing), but my recollection is that the data revealed yet another gender difference: as men grew more wealthy they tended to give less, whereas for women, the trend was the opposite. Based on the written comments we got back we surmised that poorer men had a greater sense of empathy for those needing handouts, and wealthier women a greater sense of freedom to be able to afford to help.
But whatever the result and whatever the reason, the takeaway from the project I still carry with me was that we need to pay attention to those invisible forces, particularly in policy discussions. We can’t simply demand that people act differently than they do: we need to understand why they act as they do and what needs to change for them to be able to choose to act differently.