Aren’t systems just people?

You talk about ‘systems’ of privilege. Aren’t systems just people?

The best way I know to respond to this question, is to borrow a section from my book, The Forest and the Trees:

If sociology could teach everyone just one thing with the most profound effect on how we understand social life, it would, I believe, be this: We are always participating in something larger than ourselves, and if we want to understand social life and what happens to people in it, we have to understand what it is that we’re participating in and how we participate in it. In other words, the key to understanding social life is neither just the forest nor just the trees. It’s the forest and the trees and how they’re related to one another. Sociology is the study of how all this happens and the consequences that result from it.

The “larger” things we participate in are called social systems, and they come in all shapes and sizes. In general, the concept of a system refers to any collection of parts or elements that are connected in ways that cohere into some kind of whole. We can think of the engine in a car as a system, for example, a collection of parts arranged in ways that make the car “go.” Or we could think of a language as a system, with words and punctuation and rules for how to combine them into sentences that mean something. We can also think of a family as a system—a collection of elements related to one another in a way that leads us to think of it as a unit. These include things such as the positions of mother, father, wife, husband, parent, child, daughter, son, sister, and brother. Elements also include shared ideas that tie those positions together to make relationships, such as how “good mothers” are supposed to act in relation to children or what a “family” is and what makes family members “related” to one another as kin. If we take the positions and the ideas and other elements, then we can think of what results as a whole and call it a social system.

In similar ways, we can think of colleges or societies as social systems. They differ from one another—and from families—in the kinds of elements they include and how those are arranged in relation to one another. Corporations have positions such as CEOs and stockholders, for example, but the position of “mother” isn’t part of the corporate system. People who work in corporations can certainly be mothers in families, but that isn’t a position that connects them to a corporation.

Such differences are a key to seeing how systems work and produce different kinds of consequences. Corporations are sometimes referred to as “families,” for example, but if you look at how families and corporations are actually put together as systems, it’s easy to see how unrealistic such notions are. Families don’t usually “lay off” their members when times are tough or to boost the bottom line, and they usually don’t divide the food on the dinner table according to who’s the strongest and best able to grab the lion’s share for themselves.3 But corporations dispense with workers all the time as a way to raise dividends and the value of stock, and top managers routinely take a huge share of each year’s profits even while putting other members of the corporate “family” out of work.

What social life comes down to, then, is a dynamic relationship between social systems and the people who participate in them. Note that people participate in systems without being parts of the systems themselves. In this sense, “father” and “grandfather are positions in my family, and I, Allan, am a person who actually occupies those positions. It’s a crucial distinction that’s easy to lose sight of. It’s easy to lose sight of because we’re so used to thinking solely in terms of individuals. It’s crucial because it means that people aren’t systems, and systems aren’t people, and if we forget that, we’re likely to focus on the wrong thing in trying to solve our problems.

To see the difference between people and systems, imagine you’re in a social situation such as a church wedding, and that someone who’s never been in this particular place before—whose car, let’s say, has broken down and they’re looking for a phone to call for help—comes in the door and looks around.  Most likely, they will immediately know where they are in a social sense, and, even more important, they will have an accurate idea of what the people in the room expect of them even though they have no personal knowledge whatsoever of them. So long as they accurately identify the social system they are participating in and their position in relation to it, they will be able to behave appropriately without violating the expectations that go with that situation.

Thinking of systems as just people is why members of privileged groups often take it personally when someone points out that society is racist or sexist. “The United States is a racist society that privileges whites over people of color” is a statement that describes the United States as a social system. It does not thereby describe me or anyone else as an individual, for that has more to do with how each of us participates in society. As an individual, I can’t avoid participating and can’t help but be affected and shaped by that. But how all that plays out in practice depends on many things, including the choices I make about how to participate.

I was born in 1946, for example, and grew up listening to the radio shows of the day, including Amos and Andy which was full of racist stereotypes about blacks (the actors were white). Like any other child, I looked to my environment to define what was “funny.” Since this show was clearly defined as “funny” from a white perspective in a white society, and since I was born into a white family, I laughed along with everyone else as we drove along listening to the car radio. I even learned to “do” the voices of “black” characters and regaled my family with renditions of classic lines from the show.

More than fifty years later, those racist images are firmly lodged in my memory, because once they get in, there’s no getting them out. With the benefit of hindsight, I can see the racism in them and how they’re connected to massive injustice and suffering in the society I participate in. As an individual, I can’t undo the past and I can’t undo my childhood. I can, however, choose what to do about race and racism now. I can’t make my society or the place where I live or work suddenly nonracist, but I can decide how to live as a white person in relation to the privileged position of “white person” that I occupy. I can decide whether to laugh or object when I hear racist “humor.” I can decide how to treat people who aren’t classified as “white.” I can decide what to do about the consequences that racism produces for people, whether to be part of the solution or merely part of the problem. I don’t feel guilty because my country is racist, because that wasn’t my doing. But as a white person who participates in that society, I feel responsible to consider what to do about it. The only way to get past the potential for guilt and see how I can make a difference is to realize that the system isn’t me and I’m not the system.

Nonetheless, systems and people are closely connected to each other, and seeing how that works is a basic part of sociological practice. One way to see this is to compare social systems to a game such as Monopoly. We can think of Monopoly as a social system. It has positions (players, banker), it has a material reality (the board, the pieces, the dice, play money, property deeds, houses and hotels), and it has ideas that connect all of this together in a set of relationships. There are values that define the point of the game—to win—and rules that spell out what’s allowed in pursuit of winning, including the idea of cheating. Notice that we can describe the game without saying anything about the personalities, intentions, attitudes, or other characteristics of the people who might play it. The game, in other words, has an existence that we can describe all by itself. “It” exists whether or not anyone is playing it at the moment. The same is true of social systems. We don’t have to describe actual basketball players in order to describe the game of basketball as a kind of system whose characteristics distinguish it from other systems.

I don’t play Monopoly anymore, mostly because I don’t like the way I behave when I do. When I used to play Monopoly, I’d try to win, even against my children, and I couldn’t resist feeling good when I did (we’re supposed to feel good) even if I also felt bad about it. Why did I act and feel this way? It wasn’t because I have a greedy, mercenary personality, because I know that I don’t behave this way when I’m not playing Monopoly. Clearly I am capable of behaving this way as a human being, which is part of the explanation. But the rest of it comes down to the simple fact that I’d behave that way because winning is what the game of Monopoly is about.

When I participate in the Monopoly system, greedy behavior is presented to me as a path of least resistance, what you’re supposed to do if you want to feel that you belong. And when I play the game, I feel obliged to go by its rules and pursue the values it promotes. I look upon the game as having some kind of authority over the people who play it, which becomes apparent when I consider how rare it is for people to suggest changing the rules (“I’m sorry, honey,” I say as I take my kid’s last dollar, “but that’s just the way the game is played”). If we were the game, then we’d feel free to play by any rules we liked. But we tend not to see games—or systems—in that way. We tend to see them as external to us and therefore not ours to shape however we please.

What happens when people participate in a social system depends on two things: the system and how it works, and what people actually do as they participate in it from one moment to the next. What people do depends in part on the position they occupy in relation to the system and other people in it (in Monopoly, everyone occupies the same position—player—but in a classroom there are teachers and students and in a corporation there can be hundreds of different positions). People are what make a system “happen.” Without their participation, a system exists only as an idea with some physical reality attached. If no one plays Monopoly, it’s just a bunch of stuff in a box with rules written inside the cover. And if no one plays “Ford Motor Company,” it’s just a bunch of factories and offices and equipment and rules and accounts written on paper and stored in computers. In a similar sense, a society may be “racist” or “sexist,” but for racism or sexism to actually happen—or not—someone has to do or not do something in relation to someone else in the context of one social system or another.

For its part, a system affects how we think, feel, and behave as participants. It does this through the general process of socialization, but also by laying out paths of least resistance in social situations. At any given moment, there are an almost infinite number of possible things we could do, but we typically don’t realize that and see only a narrow range of possibilities. What the range looks like depends on the system we’re in. While playing Monopoly, I could reach over and take money from the bank whenever I wanted, but I probably wouldn’t like the reaction I’d get from other players. When someone I like lands on a property I own, I could tell them that I’ll give them a break and not collect the rent, but then collect it happily when someone I don’t like lands there.

But people would probably object that I wasn’t playing “fair” or by the rules. Since I’d rather people not be angry at me or kick me out of the game, it’s easier to go by the rules even when I’d rather not. And so I usually do, following the path of least resistance that’s presented to people who occupy the same position I occupy in that particular system. This is why people might laugh at racist or sexist jokes even when it makes them feel uncomfortable—because in that situation, to not laugh and risk being ostracized by everyone may make them feel more uncomfortable. The easiest—although not necessarily easy—choice is to go along. This doesn’t mean we must go along or that we will, only that if we go along we’ll run into less resistance than if we don’t.

In other situations, paths of least resistance might look quite different, and giving a friend a break or objecting to sexist humor might be seen as just what we’re supposed to do. In relation to my children, for example, I’m supposed to do whatever I can to help them—that’s the path of least resistance that goes with the relation between parent and child in the family system (except, perhaps, when we’re playing Monopoly). This is why I’d never want my daughter or son as a student in one of my classes, because I’d have to choose between conflicting paths of least resistance associated with two different systems. As a teacher, I’m supposed to treat my students the same, but, as a father, I’m supposed to treat my children as my “favorites” above other people’s children. The path of least resistance in one system is a path of much greater resistance in the other, producing what sociologists call “role conflict.”

So, social systems and people are connected through a dynamic relationship. People make systems happen, and systems lay out paths of least resistance that shape how people participate. Neither exists without the other, and yet neither can be reduced to the other. The complexity of my life isn’t some predictable product of the systems I participate in, nor is a social system an accumulation of my own and other people’s lives.

What results from all this are patterns of social life and the consequences they produce for people, for systems themselves, and for the world—in short, most of what matters in the human scheme of things.  When we can identify how a system is organized, we can see what is likely to result if people follow the paths of the least resistance.  We know, for example, where the game of Monopoly is going just by reading the rules of the game and without having to know anything about the individuals who play it, except the likelihood that most of them will follow the path of least resistance most of the time.

On the surface, the idea that we’re always participating in something larger than ourselves may seem fairly simple. But like many ideas that seem simple at first, it can take us to places that transform how we look at the world and ourselves in relation to it.


Copyright © 2013 by Allan G. Johnson. This article may be quoted, reprinted, or distributed for noncommercial purposes only and with an attribution to Allan G. Johnson,, and this copyright notice.

For a more detailed discussion of these ideas, see Allan’s books, The Forest and the Trees and Privilege, Power, and Difference, and the video, People, Systems, and the Game of Monopoly.



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