I believe in the power of social structures to transform our lives. As a sociologist, I devote my time to thinking about the impact of social structures, those sometimes formally and sometimes informally organized social arrangements that shape our lives. Since my father’s death this past Thanksgiving, I’ve been thinking about their impact in his life.
My father didn’t leave many physical traces—mainly a few family photographs and a small wooden box that contains the mementos from his life: chief among them, a medal won playing contract bridge, his dog-tags from World War II, the nameplate from his law office, and his social security card.
The bridge medal links two social structures: First, my father’s family where he learned not only bridge but everything else that an upper middle class family can teach, including the expectation of a career in the law; and, second, Syracuse University—the institution officially devoted to education which hosted the bridge tournament he, as an undergraduate, won.
World War II interrupted Dad’s formal education. He served in the Army—another social structure—seeing action in the Pacific, action that changed him profoundly. My mother had dated him once in high school and had sworn “never again.” But, he returned from the war a different person—more serious, more mature. They were set-up on a blind date and were soon married; they moved to Syracuse where Dad earned his law degree, education made possible by the G.I. Bill—more social structure.
My father practiced law for nearly 20 years before an ugly bankruptcy ended that part of our lives. We moved to Florida and started over, working as a family—informal social structure. Dad was deeply depressed but pulled himself out of that first by delivering samples of dishwashing liquid door-to-door, and then by running a huge automobile-based paper route. Everyone else—Mom, my sisters, and I—pitched in however we could. Eventually we were able to quit renting and buy a house, with financing made possible by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). Social structure again. Dad earned a real estate license and made a reasonable living until his retirement. For the last 14 years he and mom lived on social security (the result of another social structure) and a small nest egg.
The beneficial influence of social structures in my father’s life is obvious. Many of them—the G.I. Bill, the FHA, and Social Security—were part of a national plan. From New Deal to the great Society, our nation put social structures in place to help support average citizens, both those who make heroic war-time sacrifices as well as equally heroic, but unheralded, efforts in their day-to-day lives. I believe that social structures can transform our lives for the good—but only as long as we organize at home, in our communities, and in our nation—to make that happen.
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