Sam Richards: The Wisdom of Sociology at TEDxLacador (Full Transcript)

Following is the full transcript of sociologist Sam Richards’ TEDx Talk: The Wisdom of Sociology at TEDxLacador conference. This event occurred on April 4, 2014. To learn more about the speaker, read the full bio here.


Sam Richards – Sociologist 

When I was young, I thought that my freedom and my independence were the two most important things in my life. And in fact, I thought that happiness could only come from me directing my own destiny, in a way that was independent and free from the influences of other people.

And then I began studying sociology. And this threw a wrench into that thinking because the core idea of sociology is that we are shaped by other people around us. So how could I be free? But nonetheless, I continued, I held these two things in balance largely because I only understood sociology down here.

And I think, in retrospect, I was like most people, because we all know that we are shaped by other people, but so many of us, myself included, for many years, still felt that, in the end, we are drivers of our destiny; in the end, we make free decisions.

So I continued, and then this all came to a crashing halt. In the summer of 1988, I was in my bedroom, and I was preparing a lecture for the following day; I had a class; I was teaching an Intro to Sociology class, and my girlfriend, at the time, said, “Hey, can I look at your book?” So I said, “Sure.” And she started reading my textbook. And she got to the end of the first chapter and she said, “This is amazing. This is the most amazing material I have ever read.” She said, “This is life-changing.”

And to me, at the time, I had been teaching for four years, I had taken probably 30 sociology classes, written maybe 40 or 50 papers, I was studying for my PhD comprehensive exams. I wasn’t really expecting much, it was an old textbook.

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But what happened? In 30 minutes, this young woman, this 23-year-old girlfriend of mine, who had never taken a sociology class in her life, turned me into a sociologist. And here is what she said. She said, “Sam, this freedom that you’re talking about all the time…” She said, “I don’t know what you’re telling the students, but let me tell you what this book is telling you to tell them. Listen, you’re not free. You’re not free!” She scoffed at me. I remember her laughing at me.

She said, “Look. Here is what the book is telling you. Everything you think, everything you feel, everything you imagine, everything you hope for, everything you do, down to the tiniest, most minute, personal, and private actions, everything is shaped by factors and forces outside of your control that you’ll never see nor will you ever understand. Your freedom is an illusion.”

OK. So now, for me, this was like a mortal blow to my entire understanding of the world. In retrospect, I can see that I was kind of sleepwalking through the world as a sociologist, and what she did was she got me to understand not sociology down here but sociology up here. And now, I’m going to bring that to you. And I am going to give you an example.

So imagine that I’m alone in my room. And it’s dark, and it’s tough times. I’m not happy. I’m struggling. I’m in pain. Just a really difficult period in my life. And I’m thinking about ending it all. I’m thinking about committing suicide. And not only am I thinking about it but I have some pills. And I know that if I take these pills, I will die. And I have to make a decision. It’s the most personal, the most private decision that I could ever make in my life. Nothing compares to this. Nobody is involved in this decision, except me.

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What will I do? I’m not thinking about anybody else. So let me tell you what a sociologist says. Sociologists would say, “Look. This might be a personal decision – and it is, at some level – but it’s also a profound sociological moment.” And there are two things to look at, to help see this.

One, suicide rates are steady over time. They don’t change very much. So in this person’s community here, maybe let’s say, on average, let’s say 100 people killed themselves last year. This year, it will be about 100 people. Next year, approximately 100 people. The following year, roughly 100 people. So these persons are sitting here, in this private moment of despair, thinking that they are making a free decision, but they are embedded into a structure. Into a structure that leads all of the people just like them, who are sitting in their private moments of despair, to make decisions in coordination, somehow. Such that about 100 of them will decide to take the pills. How is that? How is that possible, if they are free and acting alone?

Second idea: whatever groups this person is embedded into, be they their religion, socioeconomic status, their family, race, whether they are male or female, whether they live in a city or a rural area, whatever it is, they all have different suicide rates. How is that possible? If each one of these people who are contemplating killing themselves is making a free, individual act, a free decision, how is it possible that they all have different suicide rates?

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