Focus on Personal Decisions and Individuality
The other day, my wife (partner) and I were discussing the possibility of having a second child. Key elements from class readings and discussion focus our attention on the sociological reality of this personal decision making process.
It seems as though this would be a perfectly normal, natural topic of conversation for a "young" couple to be having nowadays. But, if we consider the broader social factors that have shaped, influenced, and indeed allowed this discussion to take place, the insight provided by the Sociological Imagination can bring a new understanding to this social event.
First is the notion that we had this conversation at all. A few years ago having children would not have been a topic of discussion, but would have, perhaps, best be seen as a duty. Sweeping changes in society, some dating back to the Industrial Revolution, changes in the importance of institutions like religion (a decline in its formal influence), the growing power and influence of medicine in shaping and controlling social life, and the ever changing social reality of the family; have allowed this conversation to take place--created the possibility of choice in this natural matter. Perhaps the most significant changes have been in technology and law. The development of the birth control pill, the possibility of genetic testing and the associated availability of abortion services have allowed individuals personal choice in child bearing. These matters, both technological and social, are beyond the control of any one individual or family. Yet, they have produced a climate of individualism, free choice and privacy around what was once seen as a social and moral responsibility.
Secondly, our conversation could be characterized as one of symbolic interaction on many levels. Each of us being unsure of the "real" feelings of the other attempted to interpret comments as being either pro or con. My wife voiced many of the negatives, yet I interpreted her concerns as an attempt to allow me an "out". She is aware of the stress I have experienced with the changes brought about by our first child, she "knows" I am a creature of habit and changes always produce stress for me. I, on the other hand, voiced the positives. I relied on what I perceived to be hints from other interactions with her that she did indeed desire a second child. I wanted to show support and a willingness to have a second child.
Within this conversation we communicated symbolically on another level. There are no objective conditions here; no second child to analyze. So, we speculated symbolically as to what a second child would mean: less personal time, less sleep, more work, economic hardship; but also, more fun, joy, fulfillment and love, a friend for Hannah (our first child), and a force to inhibit our spoiling of Hannah.
A third level of symbolic interaction is intertwined within this conversation. We interpreted the future child based upon our interpretation of our experience with Hannah and our friend's children. Hannah has been a joy and is delightful; a second child could be too. Friends with a single "spoiled" child trouble us; we don't want Hannah to "be that way". And, Hannah has been so easy and is so sweet; does that mean we will get "nailed" on the second child?
So, personal choice is shaped by social context. Being middle-class, Protestant, white and living at the end of the twentieth century is not just an accident; but the result of a long process of socio-historical change that provides us the opportunity to at least imagine that we have control over our destiny. And, all conversation is seeped in a interpretive symbolic process through which people strive to understand each other and their world, and make sense together.
By the way, our decision? Only time will tell.