How does sociology and culture affect occupation throughout someone’s life?

How does sociology and culture affect occupation throughout someone’s life?

Sociology is the study of human social life, groups, and societies (Giddens et al 2013:4). The type of society around us greatly influences our thoughts and actions whether we are aware of it or not. How does our behaviour (what we think, feel and say) as social creatures influence or affect the occupations we choose, and how we carry them out? Sociology can help OTs to understand whether something is a social/public issue, or a personal problem.

Sea Otters
Sociology is the study of groups’ behaviour

Some prominent sociological theorists are Durkheim, Marx and Weber. Emile Durkheim studied the effects of capitalism on increased suicide rates in the newly industrialised European countries. He attributed this to:

  1. increased individualism where rewards from good decisions are enjoyed by the individual alone, but so too are the consequences of bad ones. Previously the blame would be shared between other members of a family or group because the decision on whether to become say, a baker, was influenced by family tradition or the need for a baker in the village, rather than someone’s individual choice to strike out and open a patisserie in Hull.
  2. too much aspiration and subsequent disappointment when what is theoretically possible isn’t achieved. What we have isn’t actually all that bad but when compared to Khloe Kardashian, our life is a turdburger.
  3. too much freedom meaning there aren’t the same connections to other people as there used to be when social norms were around to tell us who to marry, what to do on a Sunday  or how much ankle to show. People can often feel more anonymous and less connected now as a result of increased personal freedom.
  4. increased atheism – while religions are based on questionable facts with a propensity for inciting prejudice and war, they do offer an important sense of community and shared experiences to draw people together; something capitalism doesn’t offer a replacement for.
  5.  decrease in national pride and family – national identities and family ties are more diffuse and no longer give people the feeling they are part of something bigger than themselves.

Max Weber also looked at the rise of capitalism on society. He believed that Protestant Christianity and its beliefs of guilt about sin, hard work to appease this, disbelief in miracles or the mysterious ‘God’s will’, and community being more important than the family, was the catalyst that created capitalist societies, and the reason why capitalism only works well in the countries it does today (the previous or currently Protestant ones). He proposed that to improve third world countries they need ideas and cultural changes rather than more money or technology. He argued for example that the culture there revolved around the clan (family) being more important than the state, and a belief in things controlled by God’s will and so outside of personal control as reasons that Capitalism will fail.

Karl Marx advocated socialism and identified the following problems with capitalism:

  1. people feel alienated from the output of their work. More specialised jobs are efficient but they prevent people being able to express themselves through their work and see the contribution they make to human existence (for example, sturdy man gains satisfaction from creating a sturdy wooden chair, sturdy man working on a tiny part of a project or circuitry derives no fulfillment or purpose)
  2. insecure employment – businesses will sack employees where necessary, and rejection is a fundamental human fear
  3. workers are paid little while capitalists get rich, essentially exploiting what the workers are producing by bosses reselling it for more than what they were paid to create it
  4. capitalism is fundamentally unstable with a series of crises that will always happen, caused by us being able to produce more than what is needed
  5. economic interests are put above any other aspects in life, and the possibility of more leisure time is seen as a negative thing. An example is that profit and healthcare do not mix since health should be the most important outcome but from a capitalist viewpoint profit comes before health outcomes.


Some key socialist theories are:

  • Structural/Functional theory– explains how society functions as a system, according to the relationships between the different social institution such as law, religion, education etc. If society is functioning adequately there is no impetus to address race or gender inequalities in the status quo
  • Conflict/Critical theory– examines and challenges ingrained inequalities and the resulting power differences in society, such as class
  • Inter/Actionist theory– says that social processes derive from human action and human interaction between individuals, and examines how individuals act within society


People gain a sense of identity from the occupations they carry out, but they can also create shared identities as part of a group where shared occupations are carried out. For example, a Stitch n’Bitch craft group or gym class crowd. Shared occupations can express the group’s values, customs and identity, but it should be noted that social groups can support but also limit an individual’s identity development. If the group’s direction changes in a way you don’t want to go it can cause you to question your own identity or feel isolated as an individual, eg you are in a social group with your secondary school friends but when they all become married and have children you feel isolated and question your own life choices (when you don’t get married yourself for another ten years) since the groups social norms are diverging away from your own leading you to question whether you should follow these norms or not.

Overall, there are both individual and societal influences on someone’s behaviour. In the example of school bullying, this occurs for a variety of reasons and can be correspondingly caused by a variety of factors, both nature and nurture in origin. It isn’t just one thing that we can pin down as the cause, and while someone may have individual reasons (such as displaced anger from parental neglect or abuse) it’s also the case that behaviour is learned from the family and friends around us, media, and the wider social environment. Singh-Manoux and Marmot (cited in Eckersley, 2006) argued that social norms become embodied as individual perception creating predisposed (eg class dependent) ways of thinking, acting, and feeling which are then reproduced between generations. These norms are often invisible to people living within them because they are such deeply internalised ethnocentric assumptions; they would only be apparent if you were extremely objective and self-aware; but they are more easily identified by outside cultures ‘looking in’ in the same way that you can identify cultural influences more easily in societies other than your own.



Eckersley R (2006) ‘Is modern Western culture a health hazard?’ International Journal of Epidemiology 35(2): 252-258 [NB: Epidemiology is the study of the patterns, causes, and effects of health and disease conditions in defined populations]

Christiansen C H and Townsend E A (2011) ‘The occupational nature of groups’ In: Christiansen C H and Townsend E A (eds) Introduction to occupation: the art and science of living (175-210) New Jersey: Pearson

Giddens A, Duneier M, Appelbaum R P and Carr D (2013) Essentials of Sociology (4th Edition) New York: W W Norton and Company Inc.

Hughes M, Kroehler C J and Vander Zanden J W (2002) Sociology The Core (6th Edition) Boston: McGraw Hill

Ritzer G (2013) Introduction to Sociology Los Angeles: Sage Publications