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The Influence of Context on Individual Achievements

Why do some have everything while others have nothing? Why do some become successful while others drown in a river of failure? Why do some live to the fullest, while others just exist and even try to survive? There are two opposite points of view on these issues. On the one hand, some might say that a person is responsible for their own lives and what happens to them. On the other hand, there is an opinion that there is a unique destiny of a person, which they cannot define themselves. Whereas in the United States, there is a widespread belief that a person can be creators of their lives, there are greater powers at work that influence their position in the world since apart from the individual agency there are social structures.

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As some definite supra-individual formations, social structures are of great importance in forming an individual’s life possibilities. These structures can be the mode of production, economic relations, social class, the structure of society, and many others. Unfortunately, although they do not remain the same, they are much more difficult to change or shape than one person’s actions. Thus, despite personal beliefs, desires, and actions, a person cannot fully determine their place in the world. Hogge proves this point by saying that “The inequality between the rich and the poor in America is growing, and this hoarding of wealth by the wealthy makes it very difficult to change class” (para. 1). That is why it is essential to keep in mind macro social and economic conditions when considering individual opportunities. It is in this context that what sociologists call vertical social mobility happens when they talk about the possibility and reality of improving the position of a person in the system of society. At the same time, both intergenerational mobility (for example, first-generation students in higher education institutions) and within the generation itself (those opportunities that individuals have during their lives) are essential. At the same time, many social factors make social mobility possible or difficult. Among them are education, initial position (social and economic position of the family), the influence of the environment, socialization, opportunities for access to limited resources, social capital, and much more. All these factors can both stimulate and inhibit an increase in the set of human opportunities for changing their position in society and building their life strategy. That is why it is impossible to say that only the individual efforts of a person affect his success or failure.

It is evident that personal social and economic background still ultimately matters when forming a pool of individual opportunities. As Hogge states, “The economic divide between the rich and the poor is so vast that it is nearly impossible to cross. Of people born into the bottom 20%, 70% remain under the middle class. The poor are trapped in their class due to the rich hoarding their wealth […] This traps the poor in poverty while the rich get richer at their expense, thus killing the American dream (para.4). It proves the point that even the current model of capitalism reinforces social and economic differences. Additionally, if one considers the problem on the global level, the situation is similar: the globalization of production and finances leads to rich countries’ development and regression of the poor exploited ones.

However, it has been argued that in the US, the situation is different for the reason that this country provides a vast pool of opportunities and freedom to people so that they can achieve their dreams. The only thing they have to show is their utter belief and persistence. Achieving ​​dreams is possible, yet demands a lot of effort. In her book “Hidden Figures” Margot Lee Shetterly shows outstanding histories of four African American women whose great input in NASA’s achievements was left invisible. However, the lives of those women were distinguished for what they have achieved was striking in that particular socio-historical context. For example, educated in two specialties – mathematics and physics, Mary Jackson worked as a teacher, and at that time it was considered a worthy career for many women with higher education because most of the women stayed at home with their children or did low-paying jobs. In 1951 she was admitted to NASA. The duties included extracting relevant data from experiments and flight tests (Shetterly). It might be considered an example of the actual possibility to achieve one’s dreams despite any obstacles. However, this story is just an exception to the rule. Unfortunately, while there are some outstanding unusual cases of brilliant careers, the general context plays a major role in the bigger picture. The team argues that “The American Dream […] has come to reflect an individual’s personal choice. Having the freedom to choose your path and be whatever you want to be is the true American Dream “(para. 2). Even though it is essential to believe in one’s possibilities, such a way of thinking presents a slippery slope when taken on a global level since it sugarcoats the real societal issues by turning someone’s failures into their problems. Hogge supports this claim by arguing that “What has not been considered is the tragically low percentage of people that do not manage to grow out of their class, and the countless amount of hours those stuck in poverty have to work just to survive “(para. 4). Hogge’s point proves that despite all the achievements of democratic societies in providing opportunities for individuals to change their lives, they are still not enough to claim that a person is fully in charge of their life course.

Given the numerous convincing data and proof on the disadvantages of a big part of the US population, especially the absence of opportunities for them to make a real change in their situation, it is impossible to argue that each individual can define their destiny just by their own will and effort. It is essential to understand that greater social and economic influences structure people’s places in the world. The realization of these issues is necessary to bring real transformations to provide people with real opportunities to change their lives instead of blind optimism for individual agency.

Works Cited

Hogge, S. (2019). “The ‘American Dream’ Is No Longer Achievable.” Web.

Shetterly, Margot Lee. Hidden Figures Young Reader’s Edition: The Untold True Story of Four African-American Women Who Helped Launch Our Nation into Space. Harper, An Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2016.

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Team, B. (2020). “The Story of Buttercloth Could Be Yours Too.” Web.

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