Updated: Jul 18, 2019
Before I was an Emergency Department nurse, I was a Sociology major. Now, I'm building a career that marries the two.
What does Sociology have to do with Nursing?
Nurses and Sociologists have more in common than people might think. As healthcare professionals, we work in a complex, multi-level, multi-function system. This system is so complex that the majority of people the healthcare system exists to serve - our patients - have little understanding of how it works, or how it came to be. Nurses have insight into the functionality of the system - and also have the unique responsibility and opportunity to communicate its workings with the patient.
The relationship between Nursing and Sociology has significant power to change the future of Nursing - and the entire healthcare landscape. It is my hope that equipping nurses with the right tools will empower them to embrace the roles of system-thinkers and problem-solvers. I want nurse-led innovation of our healthcare system becomes a given.
I’m aware that most people don’t really know what Sociology is. I'm also aware that if you're the average bedside nurse, you don't have time to enroll in a sociology course. You're reading this because you want to expand your bank of knowledge, in a way that will serve you best as a nurse.
Good news: You're in the right place. At Nursing the System, I'm all about breaking down the big theoretical concepts to give you the nitty gritty. What's the main point, and why should you care?
What exactly is Sociology?
Sociology studies how humans have and continue to develop, structure, and run society. This discipline looks at everything around us, everything we as humans know to be true about our lives, and asks WHY. And to be clear, not the philosophical WHY. Not ‘Why do humans exist?’ Think more concrete than this. Instead, ‘Why do humans exist as we do?’
Sociologists answer this by identifying and studying the patterns of our society, the systems that make human daily life the way it is. And then they shatter them, breaking them into smaller and smaller structures, scrutinizing each tiny bit until they identify the very smallest piece of the societal puzzle.
These smallest pieces are called social constructs.
You can take anything in society and break it down to its smallest denominator: a social construct. Let's use global economics as an example. What was at the very conception of the idea of global economics? What is the construct the whole system revolves around? Money. And going even deeper, wealth.
Money is a social construct.
Humans used to pass around pieces of paper with numbers on them in order to sell and acquire goods and services. Then, we wrote checks. Now we open Venmo, select an emoji, and send electronic dollars to our friends.
But how did this practice begin? Early humans weren’t born into the world thinking, “I want to be rich!” Cavemen and women didn’t have Euros or Pesos. First, they likely traded goods. And then perhaps exchanged goods for pretty rocks.
Then, at some point, a human began thinking, “Wow, it sure is useful to have a lot of food and tools - and it makes people respect and fear me.” The idea of wealth was born. Then a bit later, humans may have thought “Carrying around this bag of pretty rocks is tiring. Let’s develop a more svelte, standard currency.” Voila, money!
Keep in mind that just like the earliest humans, you and I weren’t born with an innate understanding of money either. Our parents, teachers, and shopkeepers had to teach us the concept. My most memorable lesson involved the words“You can’t just walk out of the store with candy, Claire! You have to pay!” coming out of mortified mother's mouth.
Social Constructs are not 'fake'.
This next bit is important: Identifying a social construct is not the same thing as calling it fake! Money is real. Set a pile of money on fire in front of a crowd, and you’re going to see some as-real-as-they-get reactions. Humans created the concept of money, gave it value, and continue to give it value everyday when we go to work to earn a paycheck. Though it’s not innate to the Earth, it is extremely powerful. It can dictate the trajectory of a person’s life.
The key is that money is real, only as long as humans continue to give it meaning. Have you ever seen The Walking Dead - or any zombie movie for that matter? No one in the zombie apocalypse is offering, “Daryl, I’ll give you a thousand big ones for that sweet rifle.” Because in the new zombie world order, money is meaningless. The bank's are defunct. Credit cards are only good for jimmying locked doors. A few decades of that reality, and kids will be asking, “Dad, what’s this weird paper stuck to my shoe?”
The Environment is a social construct, too.
A second social construct, for your consideration: the environment. The environment is, obviously, real. We encounter it everyday (assuming we leave the hospital). But what is it? All the trees? The birds? The mountains? Oceans? Lakes? Rivers? Lizards? Frogs? Polar ice caps? The ozone layer?
It might be easier to list what the environment isn't. Not humans. Definitely not humans. Our homes? No. What about the pets in our homes? Well, they're animals...but no. What about ancient relics? The Great Wall of China, or the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza? They've been part of our world for thousands of years! Surely, they count as part of the environment...But they don't. I think you can guess where I'm going with this.
The environment is everything naturally occurring in the world, besides humans and the things humans have made. A farm full of plants and animals isn't considered the environment because humans are running the show. Cultivated environments, with a human purpose like a farm or a zoo don't qualify because we humans have labeled the environment as Everything Else. It is Other.
Now, an important distinction here is Western / American culture versus indigenous cultures. I don't speak for other cultures who may have far more reverence for the environment and position themselves in a less commodified, exploitative relationship. But that's the point. Theirs is a society different from mine. They will have a different social construction of the same natural phenomena.
Think about how the West talks about the environment: We protect it, study it, admire it, destroy it. Though we conceptualize it as Other from us, we discuss the environment in language that mandates human involvement. We have difficulty understanding its existence separate from humanity. If one day there are no humans left on Earth, then the environment won't be protected, studied, admired, or destroyed. It will just be.
Social constructions aren't bad.
Just like money, the environment won't cease to exist when humans do -- just the meaning we assign to it. Our world is chock-full of social constructs like these. And it's important to note that social constructs aren’t good or evil. They’re just the way humans have collectively organized what they observe about the world, and packaged that information up to share with future generations. Without constructs, life wouldn’t make much sense.
Nothing exists because it has to be that way. Every social structure was designed by humans and every morning, we perpetuate the existence of these structures.
If you're a nurse unhappy with our current healthcare system, you need to understand how it came to be. How is our healthcare system structured? Why does our system value what it does? Who's calling the shots? And then once you have understanding, take action.
Healthcare providers with an understanding of sociology have a leg up. Sociology teaches you to identify and analyze systems issues - two steps that will always come before finding solutions. If you've arrived at this blog and read this far, thanks for being committed to growing in your personal practice. Thank you for your commitment to healing our healthcare system.