19
May
05

Expectations

I sometimes wonder when I decided to take the expectations of others upon myself. I am not speaking familial obligations and fulfilling the duties of your job; those are pretty obvious. The obligations that you have to your family are a societal construction, and an important one. In fact, it is arguable that had the basic instinct of FUCK ALL prevailed, modern human society may have never developed.

I am instead referring to somewhat more specific expectations, some of which are at least partially based on an individual’s status set, that is, “an array of social positions (for example factory-worker, mother, church-goer) found in one person” (Marshall 1998). In Sociology we differentiate between ascribed status, which cannot be changed through any individual effort such as race, age, sex, and your family history (although the ability to change one’s sex is becoming common for gender-confused individuals); and achieved status which are a result of actions, relationships, and decisions made by the individual. Of course, like any concept in the social sciences, there is some gray area. Some statuses are arguably either ascribed or achieved, and others are some combination of the two, for instance, social class.

It is odd to think, though, of the expectations that society in general has of an individual dependent on their ascribed statuses. For instance, because I am a white male born into an upper-middle class family, there is already an expectation that I will go to college. Throw in that my father has a BS, and is working on his Masters, and that I had a respectable GPA in high school (this is an achieved status, that of a “good student”), and I must go to college, because “a mind is a terrible thing to waste.” I couldn’t tell you exactly when I took it upon myself to fulfill that expectation, but isn’t it odd to think about making that decision? Did I actually want to come to college, or did I do so simply to satisfy that expectation? Of course, I am not suggesting that there is no independent will; I of course see the advantages of going to college (expanding my knowledge, studying things that interest me, increased earnings, opportunities to meet people and do things not available otherwise).

Now consider a black male high school student, born into a working class family. His father works at an automobile plant, and his mother at a local fast food chain. He works part-time, not for extra cash, but to help pay the electric bill. He also works hard in school. In fact, he has the same GPA that I did in high school. Do you think that the pressure from everyone around him, indeed, society as a whole, to go to college is nearly at the same level? Probably not. In fact, he may have a real desire to go to college, because he also knows about all of the opportunity that comes with higher education. However, if the expectation isn’t there from his parents, and his peers, and his teachers, his motivation to achieve entry into an accredited university may falter, and even fail. His desire to succeed even in high school may also fade because it is not expected of him, and his hard work may not be met with positive reinforcement, as such. In that case, the characteristics with which he was born had more control over his destiny than those that he achieved himself. Based on societal expectations, an inner city black male student with a respectable GPA is probably more likely to become a drug-dealer than a college student.

It is interesting to consider the expectations that we have of one another and why we have those expectations, especially when they seem to be rooted in characteristics that are beyond an individual’s control. They are rooted in the memory of human history, with all of the prejudice and bias that has come to have a strong influence on the life-course, sometimes to the point that we feel we have no control over our destiny.


References

Marshall, Gordon. 1998. Status set. Oxford Dictionary of Sociology. New York: Oxford.

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