It is the start of a new school year and, once again, I am another year older while the bulk of the first year students at my college are the same age they were last year and the year before that…. One of the most basic lessons we learn from sociology is that position matters. For example, the year we are born shapes our position in the age structure. Age (like all positional variables such as race, ethnicity, class and gender) shapes our opportunities and options. It even influences our interests, tastes, and preferences.

Each year Beloit College publishes the Mindset List, a report of ways in which the world has changed since most first-year college students were born. They do so as a reminder to faculty (and other college personnel) about how different the world might appear to a typical first year student. They suggest that the majority of first year students entering college in the fall of 2009 were born in 1991.

A few examples from their Mindset List for the Class of 2013:

  • Chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream has always been a flavor choice.
  • Tattoos have always been very chic and highly visible.
  • Babies have always had a Social Security Number.
  • There has always been a Cartoon Network.
  • Women have always outnumbered men in college.
  • Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Armenia, Latvia, Georgia, Lithuania, and Estonia have always been independent nations.

I can still remember (and it doesn’t seem that long ago) walking into my Intro to Sociology course and asking my students if any of them had heard of Harry Potter and not a single one had (I’d just read the first couple books straight through and really enjoyed them, but the series was not yet widely known in the U.S.). Now just a few years later my daughters can’t imagine a world in which neither the books nor the movies existed. My daughters take broadband Internet access for granted. They assume that we can watch movies on demand through Netflix. And they have a hard time understanding what it would have been like to live in a world without such things.

We all know this is true, yet we often underestimate the significance of its implications. Because we occupy different social positions, we live in different worlds. Sociology encourages us to take such differences seriously so that we might better understand ourselves and others and thus make more informed decisions about how to act and interact.

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