Have You Tried Solving Structural Problems With Individual Choices?

Sociology and Personal Choices

Photo by Silas Baisch on Unsplash

As we enter year three of a global pandemic, we seem to be at a loss when it comes to what to do next. We’ve had several major waves, a torrent of death and suffering, and knee-jerk reactions that often led to confusion, but what we don’t have is a solution. Many countries are trying a new approach: just pretend the pandemic is over and go back to life as “normal”. It’s endemic now, they tell us. In the United States, there is a tremendous amount of debate about normalcy and restrictions, as if we had the type of lockdowns that other countries were subjected to in 2020. We, ahem, did not. But, nonetheless, a fairly sizable contingent of people want every restriction to end and normalcy to return. It’s a very Veruca Salt way of thinking: “I want it now!”.

However, we have taken this lesson and not learned it so many times: viruses really don’t care about press briefings or declarations. They aren’t subject to public opinion. They just have the one job: infect as many people as possible. That’s it. The likelihood that the virus that causes COVID will just cooperate with our whims is, well, pretty slim.

That hasn’t stopped the magical thinking from happening, and so we see countries making some interesting choices. I say interesting because these choices seem to fly in the face of science and research, but they are making them anyway. The likelihood that the U.S. is next is pretty high. All signs point to CDC guidance on masking changing soon. Vaccine passports have slowly been removed. Most states are backing off on any mandates, and a new wave of schools are about to be maskless. It’s what everyone wants, right?

The problem is that there are so many people that will be left behind when these policies disappear. We still don’t have a vaccine for children under 5. Even the 5–11 crowd that is eligible is only at 20% or so. Somewhere around 3% of our people are in the immunocompromised group; many can’t take the vaccine, and those that can find that it is not effective because their immune system is weak. What are they supposed to do? Stay inside forever?

The answer to this question seems to be: well, you protect yourself and let the rest of us live. Wear your mask; I don’t want to wear mine any longer. Just don’t go out in crowds; I need to go to Applebee’s. It’s a pretty cruel sentiment when you really think about it. This is mildly inconvenient, and, thus, I don’t want to do it. Sorry about you; that’s not my problem.

It reminds me of something that we often discuss in sociology: structural problems are hard to solve. They are complicated. They are messy. They take a tremendous amount of collaboration, time, and effort to solve. Not every structural problem even has a good solution. Some of them are so tangled that untying the knots seems impossible. So, what do we do? We put it on individuals to solve. That’s the ticket!

Take the climate crisis. We hear all the time that we need to recycle, avoid plastic straws, drive electric vehicles, and consume less meat. Sure. I imagine that if we all did that, it might improve some things. A bit. Maybe. But those individual choices are not impactful in the way that regulation of pollution put out by multi-national corporations would be. Not even close. We are asking individuals to solve problems that are so vast and profound, but we never take a look at the system itself that perpetuates the crisis.

How about poverty? We often have “common sense” knowledge about poverty: some people would be poor no matter how much you help them, people don’t want to change, people wouldn’t be poor if they made better choices, and there will always be people that don’t help themselves. Problems like poverty and homelessness are reduced to individual choices. We put it all on the individuals to solve instead of examining the system in which this significant problem persists.

We continue to treat COVID like an individual problem to solve: you do your thing, and I’ll do mine. My choices don’t impact you, and your choices shouldn’t impact me. We keep forgetting that we live in a society with a profoundly intertwined social structure. Personal choices don’t end with you; they can reverberate throughout a community. For example, in a community that has removed mask mandates and doesn’t require vaccinations, a young student might be exposed to COVID at school. He is vaccinated, and he masks as well as he can, but the kids around him give him a hard time. Even with his precautions, he is exposed and comes down with COVID. He brings it home to his dad, a kidney transplant recipient who is severely immunocompromised. When his dad dies, everyone is sad, but there is also a vaguely sinister undertone: “well, he was immunocompromised; he should have been more careful”. Individual choices!

It is extremely difficult to solve structural problems with individual choices, and, yet, we just keep trying. And we will fail because social structure is complicated. We need cooperation, and it’s critical that we recognize that some problems cannot be put onto individuals to solve. The burden is far too great. It’s too much to ask.

But, once again, we will likely fail to learn this lesson, and we will have more trouble on the horizon. Until we see social problems as inherently social, we will never be able to fully solve them.

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