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A Beginner’s Guide to Sociology: but where do you even begin?

Updated: Sep 29, 2021

By Jackie McIntosh

Can I ask you a question?

In a few words, what is society?

What is a society? Can a concept be made of anything? Is society really a concept?

Is it beholden to the people that form it? Is it a Frankenstein's monster situation? Are there patterns to how it operates? Is it predictable? Can it even be studied?

These and many other related questions have kept sociologists busy over the millennia. For you see, sociology is the study of society. Boom.

But that can't be the end of it. Because again, what is society? How does it affect you, the individual? Does it even affect you?

Short answer. Yes.

Long answer, I know you don't have the time.

Or if you're like me, you've probably heard it lamented at you for hours upon hours every week. See, I study sociology here at Cal and am about to graduate at the end of the semester (Woo!), and I have found myself to have a love/hate relationship with my choice of academic poison. I have a genuine desire to develop an advanced understanding of the societal mechanisms and social facts that define and expand the boundaries of social groups and crusade against the systemic oppression of various (pigmented) groups that root the widespread inequalities to the cores of our institutions. Yet, knowledge of bad things is still just knowledge of bad things.

And herein lies the inherent frustration of the social sciences. They're relegated to something "less than" the money-making, erhm, "hard" sciences. The biology, chemistry, physics; the ones that don't deal with (talking to) people. And that commonplace worldview often leaves many students of my breed disappointed at best because there is so much to understand about how people work and how our more extensive society functions, how we use those functions to form states and governments and maintain global relationships. In that way, we can collectively progress into something more splendid, outside of scientific development or sending billionaires to the moon.

But as much as I hate it, some So many other people don't get that privilege of educational exposure. They don't get to study and unravel the causes behind our most profound societal grievances, whether that be the bane of specialization of labor that forces students to pick a single, tunnel-visioned career path or the lack of access to education at all. But given a chance, nay, the straight information, I think we can get even the odds a bit.

Here I go again, vague concept. What odds am I talking about? Who could you even be up against? You're a free-willed individual! Or are you? That dear reader is the goal of this rambling individual behind the keyboard, to help us all understand some "basic" social science teachings that might make you think more about your role in this collective notion we call our society.

I invite you to read on to my fellow disaffected humanities students who could use a short study guide and the burgeoning inquisitive minds that stumble across this article. My goal is to make these regularly, but I am a flawed student, so I will make no promises.

And to do the thing, below are simplified and paraphrased versions of something way more intelligent than I have said, so take it with a grain of salt. I heavily advise you to conduct your own research if it interests you. It's a good rule of thumb to come with multiple sources, so don't be lazy. And to quote Nietzsche (a fine gentleman), "There are no facts, only interpretations."


I'm sure this isn't the first time you've heard the term "model minority," and I'm sure you already have a picture of a particular person in your head right now. Don't be embarrassed. It's societal conditioning.

Now we all know what it is, but do you know Why it's bad?

And you may criticize me for using such strong language, but I'm not the only one saying this. I'll link a few articles for your perusal at the end. In recent times, the model minority myth has long been chastised for its use as a device of social division amongst minority groups, mainly Asian and Black people. Now there's a lot that can be said about the various dynamics of ethnic group interactions, but we all know this one is still a fresh wound. Given the direct juxtaposition of Stop Asian Hate and Black Lives Matter calls, it seems like these movements are competing for attention like there's a limit on how much society can care about its POC groups at any given point.

And forgive me for saying this, but Black people often lose this moral debate. If you need an example, google two things for me; how long it took to pass Act S.937, otherwise known as the COVID-19 Hate crimes Act, and when the first anti-lynching bill was passed.

I could go on, but doing so only proves the original point. These actions are inherently divisive. You think something as fundamental to one's civil rights as congressional laws can't be used against you. You're unfortunately mistaken.

Racial triangulation, an incredibly hard-to-spell-on-the-first-try word that describes the historical process behind the model minority trope. But before we get into racial triangulation (it's a fun word, right!), we have to get through some background first.

Racial triangulation is a mechanism of racial positionality, which refers to the ranking of minorities in an imagined racial hierarchy based on the white supremacist standard, with white people occupying the top or dominant position. The United States has been often "accused" of putting this system to work, using it as a pseudo-moral basis for mistreatment of minority groups, most infamously through chattel slavery of black Americans.

Racial triangulation, described by Claire Jean Kim, is often brought up in conversation related to the effects of white supremacy on society, often cited for the detriment it causes for ethnic groups. When broadening relationships with East Asian countries, the white supremacist class had to devise a way to introduce the Asian ethnic minority into the existing racial hierarchy in the United States. This was to maintain control over the black population and the economic system of chattel slavery.

Racial triangulation can be handily demonstrated in graph form (isn't that great?), which I will leave for your reading materials.

The racial groups are placed along two axes, the "x" being native/foreign and the "y" being increasing "valuation," or the racial groups' inherent "valor" as observed by the white supremacist group. You could guess the order of operation here. I will also include a political cartoon that outlines this situation less boringly.

You can see from the cartoon the inherent power imbalance of this racial structure. For a little bit of background, the man in the center of the photo is the Secretary of State. He personally led to the breaking down of relations between the United States and China in the late 1800s and sentencing a nation of Chinese Immigrants to the horrors of racist violence and discrimination that could live on in American society. The Burlingame treaty, which our main man is stepping on, was an agreement between the United States and China; An early workers exchange program of sorts. "You send us people, you build our railroads, and we will follow up with some indeterminate clause that will certainly be fulfilled at some point." And when, shockingly, this agreement fell through *after* most of the railroads had been built, our main man turned his back on his former allies and turned to the voters to decide on what status Chinese people got to have in American society. As depicted by the cartoon, those voters often were unwitting participants by way of unavoidable ignorance or outright fear of the perceived consequences and were Black.

The point is, the structure of racial triangulation is designed to maintain white supremacy. It's actively harming our society, no matter which "side" of the inequality you're on.

The introduction of Asian Americans and other POC into the racial framework was carefully constructed to serve its forever purpose, control. It manages to alienate "foreign-born' POC and subjugate "native-born" Black people. The "model minority" holds minorities to a white standard without explicitly being anti-black. One could point to the relative success other POC have had in this country and the possibility that minorities can succeed if they simply work hard enough. This denigrates the significant factor that this is literally the white supremacist agenda. The manufactured standard of "success" for minorities was defined by white supremacists to keep our energy to keep it from destroying their proud institution. As long as one continues to squabble, the other maintains control. They have created the standard for which minority groups hypothetically strive while also justifying their own credentials as "above us" to judge that innate ability.

The truth is the more we play into harmful tropes, the stronger their underlying belief is tied to our collective consciousness. That is, the more we as a society believe it as a norm. We can do something about what we accept as a people by taking closer looks at how we interact with one another and how we hold ourselves compared to others outside of our own group. And there are far more examinations to be made as we grow as a whole. But, you know, baby steps.









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