Sociological Imagination: Decoding Obesity’s Societal Roots
Sociological Imagination: Introduction and Theoretical Foundations
In sociology, to understand one’s self, we must understand the relationship between self and society, which is most effectively done through the theory of the sociological imagination. In 1959, C. Write Mills stated in his seminal work, The Sociological Imagination, “The sociological imagination enables us to grasp history and biography and the relations between the two within society. That is its task and its promise.” The concept is to understand the distinction between a person’s troubles and public issues.
The Sociological Imagination Lens: Personal vs. Public
At what point does something such as trouble finding a job shift from being a personal problem to a public issue? If one person is unemployed, that is a personal problem; however, if 1 million out of 10 million people cannot find employment, that is a public issue. According to Mills, there is an intricate relationship between the individual and society. Whatever a person does is not just because of their own choice or personal preference because there is context and circumstances for every action. When approaching a problem from an individual perspective, the problem is only being looked at with one lens from one side. The sociological imagination views problems from many lenses from many angles.
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Obesity Through the Sociological Imagination: Beyond Personal Choices
Practically, any personal behavior can be looked at with the sociological imagination. Take, for example, the public issue of obesity, which is often met with the stigma of being a personal problem. From a personal perspective, everyone needs to eat to live, but there are many reasons other than necessities that people gather around food. Celebrations such as birthdays, funerals, holidays, or just socializing with friends often involve food.
Superficially, what a person eats and how much they eat are within their control. Suppose a person belongs to a family that often gets together for large gatherings. At these gatherings, there are often lots of carb and fat-heavy choices with lots of sugary desserts. Low-fat or healthy options are not the focus. After the family eats, they gather around a TV or a fire, and not much is done in the way of activities such as walking and running or even a game of family football. Over time, one realizes that these gatherings are contributing to growing waistlines.
It could be said that this is a personal trouble in which the person is making a conscious choice on what they are putting in their body. This may be true to some extent, but it does not provide the full picture. Human behavior is influenced by others, and in cases such as family gatherings, how might the family react if one chooses not to eat what others are? Social acceptance is a driving force for behavior, even among family, and people tend to like similar foods to the people around us. So, actions may ultimately be personal choices, but they do not occur in a vacuum.
Societal Structures and The Sociological Imagination: Addressing Obesity
What else may influence a person to become obese, and when does a personal problem become a larger societal issue? According to the Centers for Disease Control, approximately 35% of the United States adult population is considered obese. That percentage bumps up to 69% when we consider all adults who are also overweight. Social structures that contribute to obesity include food deserts, which are areas of the United States that do not have access to healthy and fresh foods and can be found in both urban and rural areas. These are places where it is difficult to grow healthy food locally, and there is little to no access to local markets where we carry such items.
Then, there are the government subsidies. Research shows that less than 1% of subsidies by the United States government go toward the production of fresh fruits and vegetables, while the majority of the subsidies are given to meat, dairy, and grain production. This means that the prices of healthy foods are significantly more expensive than the prices of unhealthy foods. We are also biologically driven to get the biggest energy bang for our buck, so if we have five dollars in our pockets and are hungry, we are likely going to purchase five dollars in fast food rather than five dollars for a bag of apples. Another major contributor to this epidemic is the food industry and its marketing. When constantly surrounded by ads for candy, chips, and fast food places, people’s sub-consciences are wired to seek those out. These low nutritional value snacks are also what always surround the customer at any convenience store. The ads are also often marketed to children who are much easier to influence, which also creates generations that have to deal with breaking junk food habits.
These are by no means the only social structures that contribute to obesity as a social problem, and by no means is obesity the only issue these structures contribute to. Currently, America spends approximately $147 billion on illnesses and diseases related to obesity. This creates even more issues as the cost of healthcare and health insurance increases because society cannot afford to treat the expanding obese population. The major benefit of the sociological imagination is that it reveals the weaknesses in these systems as points to be fixed in order to address the issue.
In the war against obesity, attacking the aforementioned contributing social structures is the most apparent way to combat the epidemic. If farming subsidies begin to shift, then these food deserts will start to become scarcer. The government would also need to start placing regulations on food marketing, especially for children. Taxes on junk foods and fast foods while incentivizing healthier food with lower prices due to changing farm subsidies would truly alter the direction of this public health crisis. The sociological imagination shows that society influences a person’s behavior, and that person’s behavior contributes to a social issue.
- Mills, C. W. (1959). The sociological imagination. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020). Adult Obesity Facts. Retrieved from CDC website.
- Popkin, B. M., Adair, L. S., & Ng, S. W. (2012). Global nutrition transition and the pandemic of obesity in developing countries. Nutrition reviews.
- Pollan, M. (2008). In defense of food: An eater’s manifesto. Penguin.
- Walker, R. E., Keane, C. R., & Burke, J. G. (2010). Disparities and access to healthy food in the United States: A review of food deserts literature. Health & place.
- Swinburn, B. A., Sacks, G., Hall, K. D., McPherson, K., Finegood, D. T., Moodie, M. L., & Gortmaker, S. L. (2011). The global obesity pandemic: shaped by global drivers and local environments.