One of the lessons we learn from sociology is the “significance of place.” What I mean by that is that our social position shapes how we think and act. One way to describe our social position is in terms of demographic categories that we might occupy. What might these be? Some of the major ones that sociologists pay attention to are age, gender, race/ethnicity, social class/economic position, education, nationality, and religion. The key question when considering such factors is this: does knowing a persons position in such a demographic category help us explain how they think and act better than if we did not have that information. It is clear that, quite often, the answer to that question is “yes.”

One example of the impact our demographic position has on how we think is known as “the generation gap.” Simply put, this means that young people think differently than older people. The perceptions of each group are differently shaped by when they grew up and by the stage they are at in their lives. A recent survey done in Iowa points to such differences. People age 18-29 have significantly different attitudes on a variety of issues than do people 65 and over. For example, they found:

“In the latest Iowa Poll, 74 percent of young adults are accepting of gambling, but only 41 percent of Iowans 65 or older feel that way.On the issue of premarital sex, two-thirds of young adults say sex between an unmarried man and woman is morally acceptable, but only one-fourth of seniors agree.”

The survey reports on a number of other issues as well, including attitudes about the work ethic, commitment to marriage, and respect for authority. It would be interesting to discuss why these differences exist. Are they simply due to the difference between being old and being young? Are they shaped by the different historical contexts within which each group was raised?

Sociologically, we need to recognize the ways in which our beliefs and actions are not simply due to our own individual preferences, but are shaped by the positions we occupy.