Term Paper: Theoretical Applications in Sociology: Critical

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[. . .] Path dependence is essentially the flip side of "equifinality" which purports that two systems can begin in different places and end in the same place (Warren et al., 2008). What the two notions have in common is the premise that a system's autonomous actions necessarily determine the system's fate.

The perception of the individual as an agent of change has vast implications for sociological theory and social work practices. In addition to changing the ways in which sociologists perceive and interpret systems theory, it lends support to critical theory, which purports that the global social system is not fixed and invulnerable to change, but ever changing and requiring revolution. Initially, critical theory developed out of the belief that the global system was corrupt with injustice and domination, hence the focus of traditional critical theorists on empowering the oppressed towards the purpose of disallowing unjust domination. As social philosopher and economist Karl Marx said "Philosophers have always interpreted the world, but the point is to change it" (Barnoff & Coleman, 2007).

For critical theorists, society is shaped by a struggle for power. The dominant group seeks to oppress the subordinate group by denying them the power to change their situations in effort to maintain power and the dominant role.

Oppression entails associations of domination that split people into leading or superior groups and secondary or inferior ones. These associations of domination entail the methodical diminishing of the characteristics and offerings of those thought to be inferior and their barring from the social assets accessible to those in the dominant group seek to refute agency in those who they deem inferior. In addition, the ruling group describes the lesser situation of those at the bottom of the social pile as one of a submissiveness that has little capacity for change. They draw on instruments of normalization that endorse dominant values and precedence's to inflict a range of social control groups intended at restraining the actions of subordinate groups within the grounds that the dominate group delegates as lawful. Therefore, oppressive relations are about restraining the range of choices that subordinated people and groups can eagerly implement. (Dominell, 2003).

An example of this type of oppression is sexism, "A system of male dominance that disadvantages women in all aspects of public and private life, such as employment, media and personal relationships" Barnoff & Coleman, 2007). Similarly, racism is a system of typically white dominance that disadvantages Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Puerto Ricans and other persons of color in education, employment, and social media. Because the institutions of sexism and racism are interwoven into fabric of the predominant social system, the system itself must undergo a revolution in order to discourage -- and perhaps even disallow -- oppression of subordinate groups.

Returning to the perception of the individual as an agent of change, changing the global system necessarily entails changing oppressive circumstances of individual agents. According to Mullaly (2002), specific challenges to changing oppressive circumstances include the following:

1. Meeting and suppressing the dominating force of the prevailing culture.

2. Navigating the psychological and interpersonal trauma related to the experience of oppression.

3. Overcoming the political component of oppression as constructed and maintained by the dominant group.

4. Addressing the internalized effects of dominance and oppression on the part of the oppressed as well as the dominant.

With these challenges in mind, Mullaly asserts that anti-oppressive social work "requires forms of interventions that link the division of existential liberty and socio-political freedom" (Mullaly, 2002). In other words, anti-oppressive social work must provide currently oppressed individuals with the necessary tools to rise above their current oppressive circumstances. This includes providing education and employment resources, adequate housing, and various other resources designed to meet the basic needs of oppressed individuals, toward the purpose of empowering them to "alter themselves and their social circumstances" (Mullaly, 2002). While anti-oppressive social work can provide the necessary tools for change, it remains the responsibility of the individual to carry out this change.

In an effort to exemplify how both systems and critical theory can be applied to practical situations, consider them in relation to the following fictional case study. Known as "Fresh" by his immediate peer group, Michael is 12-year-old African-American boy growing up in the inner-city projects. Though Michael is highly intelligent, performs well in school, obeys the rules of his aunt whom he lives with -- with 11 other cousins -- and hopes to eventually leave the projects behind him, he resorts to running drugs for a local drug dealer in an effort to save money and attain the respect of the neighborhood thugs. This is a description of the plight of the young protagonist in the film Fresh (1994). Though Michael's current situation is one of severe disadvantage, he eventually seeks the help of a police officer investigating several murders Michael was a witness to. The first murder was that of his friend, Rosie, caught in the crossfire of gang member's gun; the second murder was that of his friend, Chucky, jumped by another gang; and the final murders were those of the gang members themselves by an another rival gang. Such violence is one of the many components of Michael's current situation of systemic oppression. Other components include the severe poverty of his family, neighbors and friends, the heroine-addiction of his only sister, and the perception that he must resort to the same activities of the drug dealers he loathes in order to escape his current situation. The money he makes running drugs, he saves in a tin can hidden by the tracks on the city's outskirts. Says Fresh to his friend Rosie in scene two, "If I had me a million dollars, I'd get me a Porshe 959." And when Rosie says it doesn't matter because he'll never have a million dollars, "I will too," says Fresh. "Someday, I'm gonna have it" (Fresh, 1994).

It is Michael's determination to rise above his current situation that makes change possible for him. When Michael realizes that he is being groomed to be the dealer's right hand man, in which case he may never get out of the projects, he forms a plan to turn the opposing gangs against each other, wiping one out completely and turning another in to the police. In exchange for his eye witness testimony against the gang, Fresh asks only that he and sister be removed from the projects to a safer place.

In terms of systems theory, the notion of path dependence comes to mind. Though Michael was born and grew up in the same place as his friends Rosie, Chucky, and the gang of drug dealers he eventually outsmarts, he ends up in an entirely different place due to the decisions he makes and his autonomous actions. In this way, Michael is perfect example of an autonomous, self-organizing system continually pushing itself to higher and higher planes of organizational capability. While the movie ends without clearly defining Michael's fate, the audience is left with the impression that he will indeed continue to rise above his current situations to ever increasing heights of existential freedom.

Nevertheless, he will encounter challenges along the way. Of particular note is the challenge of overcoming the internalized effects of his oppressive experiences, to include but not limited to the violence he has witnessed. While Michael maintains an air of detached stoicism throughout the film, in the final scene of the film he breaks down. This is indicative of previously internalized trauma rising to the surface, as Mullaly (2002) cited as one of the foremost challenges to changing oppressive circumstances.

While Michael's case can be viewed from a systems theoretical perspective, critical theory is more applicable in a practical sense. As a social worker assigned to Michael's case, the first order of business would be to remove him from the projects to place of safety and security -- both perceived and actual -- and then to provide with the educational and psychological resources necessary to alter himself as he sees fit. Once again, while anti-oppressive social work can provide the tools of change, it is up to the individual to bring the change about.

According to both systems and critical theory, a change in one person's life can contribute to a change of the entire system. For example, imagine that Michael is successful in overcoming the trauma of his past experiences; imagine he is successful in obtaining an education, graduating high school and going on to college; imagine he decides to use his experiences to the benefit of others by becoming a counselor for children dealing with similar oppression-related trauma, and imagine that many of those children are in turn successful in their pursuits of productive, well-adjusted lives. Now think back and remember that it all began with one little boy's determination to change his current situation and to become something other than street corner drug dealer. Remember that one little boy's success at getting out of the projects… [END OF PREVIEW]

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