The Power of Socio-Cultural Programming

Carol A. Hand

“Critical theory holds that … capitalist social organization is the overarching social problem from which most other social problems derive.” (Luske, 1998, 0. 118)

Living in the liminal space between cultures often provides a confounding but fascinating vantage point. It’s difficult to explain this to others who have had the comfortable privilege of growing up surrounded by only one perspective. Advocacy and teaching are challenging in such a context. How can one provide opportunities to raise awareness about alternative perspectives and meanings? Three rather divergent examples from my time in academia came to mind as I thought about this question.

Norma b

Photo: Lac Du Flambeau Ojibwe reservation – 1923 –

My mother at 2 dressed by the wealthy Euro-American woman who wanted to adopt her

norma 1

Photo: Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe reservation – 1928 –

My mother at 7 (her birth mother refused to allow her to be adopted)


Research that uncovers the powerful, seductive appeal of social status.

One of the resources I found helpful is an article that details the findings of a critical ethnographic study conducted by simulating social inequality in a college classroom: Are we all dumb cattle to be branded and corralled? – Social inequality and praxis in the college classroom (Luske, 1998). In a core social work course on the sociology of inequality, the instructor conducted what he describes as a critical ethnography. At the beginning of the semester, students were randomly selected to be in one of three groups – upper, middle, or lower class – “to simulate the accident of birth.” “Color-coded badges are issued to lower and middle classes, and each of the three classes is assigned different class-specific workloads, privileges, or liabilities” (p. 120). Students are required to keep a journal of their feelings during the project to analyze the effectiveness of the course in relation to the “readings and their own lives” (p. 121).

The instructor carefully explains the purpose on the first day of class, hoping that students would come together to challenge his authority and the system of inequality despite these socially constructed divisions imposed by his authority.

“… my main goal is to stir in each student a deep, even painful experiential knowledge of ‘unfairness’ as indicative of the systemic social inequality which essentially characterizes American society – or, if the student inherits upper-class status, to feel the direct sting of resentment or opposition.”

Are you curious to know what he discovered in this study of social work students whose ethical code specifically emphasizes the profession’s obligation to challenge social injustice?

The classroom revolution finally emerged in the tenth week of a sixteen-week semester when a group of four students, comprised of representatives from each social class, handed him a document: Declaration of Equality – “Are we all dumb cattle to be branded and corralled?” The revolution originated with one young women assigned to the lower class in the simulation who, through critical reflection about her own middle class experiences, recognized the source of oppression and wanted to do something about it. She was joined by another young woman from the upper class who questioned the oppressive classroom structure. They were joined by two young men, one lower class and one middle class who also were eager to address the sources of oppression and engage in liberatory praxis.

“There is no question that students in this particular … class develop exemplary critical insight (radical reflexivity). I want again to emphasize that I believe this happy phenomenon to be attributable mainly to the emergence of student leaders who embody an ideal concatenation of sociological imagination, self-reflexivity, strategic acumen, patience, and compassion. For just one important example, the leaders recognize their own first impulse is to punish the former upper class, but interrogate and interrupt this desire to establish instead radically egalitarian classroom policies that include the former upper class.” (Luske, p. 147)


Photo: Community

This is a very superficial overview of a fascinating article. I hope you have an opportunity to read Luske’s full article. “Are we all dumb cattle to be branded and corralled?” – Social inequality and praxis in the college classroom. Perspectives on Social Problems, 10, 117-151. You can link to his bio and a list of his other works here.

Inequality simulation and raising consciousness about what “society” values.

If I ask you to review the following list of personal attributes and identify which ones society most values, how would you answer? How would you rank order them from the most valued attributes to the least valued?


And for this list?


Now, imagine you are part of a team, competing with other teams to answer a series of similar questions with the goal of earning the highest numeric score in order to win the game. The rules seem pretty straightforward. The names of the team are written across the black or white board up front. Each team is advised to choose a recorder and discuss each of the lists they are given, and rank order the items on the answer sheet from the most valued to the least valued. They enter the team’s top choice on the answer sheet and record the score when score sheets are handed out. When all the teams are finished, someone from each team calls out the team’s points and the instructor/facilitator writes the scores on the board.


Photo: Tug of War

This is when things begin to get interesting. Some teams ask “What’s going on? Everyone took this seriously and we all worked hard. Why are the scores for teams so different? How could our team get minus points?”

The second challenge, to choose the roles society most values, is even more discouraging for some of the teams when scores are tallied. Often you can literally feel the anger and frustration building. You can overhear comments. “Why should we bother! We can never win at this point!”

But they still remain engaged in the final round, to choose the professions society most values. And by now, the final scores are clearly skewed in ways that are impossible to believe for some teams. There is no way the winning teams could have earned that many points. “What’s going on?!!!”

Privilege gives some the ability to enjoy special advantages without ever giving it a conscious thought. The strange thing is that others have accepted the normalcy or appropriateness of these advantages as Luske’s study clearly documented. The preceding exercise is based on a simulation that was developed to highlight the taken-for-granted nature of gender inequality. It actually works to highlight the experiences of others who are also devalued in a society dominated by white Christian heterosexual “temporarily able-bodied” economically-comfortable males. Assertiveness is valued and appropriate for this group, but is it as valued when a Native Woman or Black man are assertive? What happens when White men are perceived as self-effacing or demure?

Debriefing the exercise was always fascinating. The score sheets were different – one version reflected points that society would award to white men, and the other version the points that women or other devalued groups would earn. Of course the points are arbitrary and depend on historical context.

Upersonal attribute score sheet

This exercise has proven to be effective with undergraduate and graduate students, as well as with human services professionals. During debriefing, the “other” groups would talk about their anger, frustration, and resignation. (Only one “other” group out of hundreds gave fictive scores to record on the board – a creative solution in a clearly unfair context from my perspective.) The “White Male” teams were angry to find out that they had an unfair advantage. “We worked hard for our scores. We feel we deserve to win.” And really, what does “winning” mean in this context? No financial rewards or extra credit grade points were riding on the final outcome.

Role playing and raising consciousness about assumptions.

How often do we automatically assume that others, when the details about background are unspecified, are white, middle class, heterosexual, and without disabilities? It’s not something I really noticed until I taught interviewing skills to undergraduate social work students. I realized that students assumed that the clients they would serve as social workers would be just like them. This certainly hadn’t been my experience. So I decided to let them develop the details of their clients, but here is where the assignment becomes a little complex. I had learned through experience that it is quite challenging to design role plays that protect students from the risk of inappropriate levels of personal self-disclosure to their peers. The conundrum becomes how to construct role plays that are ethical, safe, and as realistic as possible – role plays that they will take seriously and may actually help prepare students to be able to work with clients and topics that would be challenging for them.

In order to increase the usefulness of the class for their future work, I decided to use case scenarios that a previous instructor had developed. The scenarios were vague, but listed the issues each client was dealing with and maybe a relevant detail like age or gender. I decided on some crucial pedagogical design features:

First, clients would be randomly assigned to students. (They picked the client number out of a hat.)

Second, each student would be randomly assigned to a three-member team (or in some cases, a four-member team depending on the actual size of a class with enrollment capped at 25).

Third, each student on the team would play all of the three key roles: social worker, client, and equipment operator/interview observer.

Fourth, students were all required to do a series of three interviews with their client over the course of the semester that followed the basic structure of an intervention. Forming trust and rapport (“engagement” in social work jargon), gathering information about problems, issues, strengths, and resources (“assessment”), and developing an intervention strategy (“action plan”) in partnership with their client.

Fifth, all interviews would be tape recorded and posted online so team members could have access to each other’s videos.

And finally, students would be responsible for analyzing their own performance as interviewers by applying what they learned through readings, homework, and class lectures.

It took me time to realize that the predominantly White students assumed that all of their clients were white, Christian, and heterosexual, unless other characteristics were explicitly noted on the case scenarios. There was one exception. In the case of clients with criminal justice issues, they were often seen as Black or Latino. This meant developing greater clarity and accountability for the client role players and “quizzing” students after the teams developed more details about their clients.

“Can you tell me more about your client’s background – ancestry, socio-economic status, religion, sexual orientation, etc.? Do you think you would need to change your approach if your client were Black, Latino, Native American, Muslim, Jewish, gay, etc.?”


Photo:  Community

Despite the relative homogeneity of the class composition, students rose to the challenge of portraying people who were from backgrounds different than their own in ways that were respectful, authentic, empathetic, and challenging for the interviewers so they could develop appropriate knowledge and skills. Perhaps the most important outcome was the self-awareness students gained about who they were and about their own skills and areas they identified as something they wanted to address in the future.


Luske’s study, the “Becoming a Person simulation, and teaching interviewing all helped me realize how easy it is for all of us to assume that the people we encounter will be just like us, that structural inequality is normal, and that there’s little we can do to change anything, even if we’re suffering ourselves.

The students in the interviewing class taught me how important it is be willing to take time for self-reflection – time to uncover our strengths and test our limits. This is a necessary foundation for being willing to risk leaving our comfort zone to engage with others who are different. It’s the only way we can really learn about other people and different ways of seeing the world. They also demonstrated how important it is to be willing to uncover our own biases and acknowledge things we take for granted.

Luske’s students and the feminists who originally developed the Becoming a Person simulation modeled the importance of thinking critically about the mechanisms and sources of oppression for all people. Much of what oppresses us is structural, but some of it is our internalized acceptance of the taken-for-granted paradigms that keep oppressive structures in place. And like Luske’s students, we need to be willing to build bridges with comrades in other positionalities to work together for our collective liberation.


45 thoughts on “The Power of Socio-Cultural Programming

  1. this academic piece inspires
    sadness & hope for humanity’s
    bridging of their potential & opportunity lost, Carol.
    yes, a system that rewards competition
    over cooperation
    feeds mind’s inclinations of greed, hatred & delusion.

    I’d rather be a hammer than a nail
    Yes I would
    If I only could, I surely would

    Simon And Garfunkel – El Condor Pasa Lyrics

    Liked by 3 people

    1. A great song, David 🙂

      As always, I am grateful for your thoughtful comments. Recent events have inspired me to reflect on possible ways to raise awareness about the need and possibility for change and concrete ways to work toward that goal.


    1. I appreciate your comments, Diane. I did work hard to try to teach to reality in hopes that students would think critically and develop skills that were creative and future-oriented.


    1. Your recent post inspired me to finish it, Nicci. Thank you for always raising important issues in thought-provoking ways. Like you, I have been pondering the deeply disturbing reactions to recent events in the US and elsewhere and wanted to focus on concrete suggestions for raising awareness.


  2. Reblogged this on Dolphin and commented:
    A great piece on diversity and examining our own issues. I am so grateful for my Liberal Arts education, but until I became poor while white, the true comprehension of how difficult life is and how difficult it is to get out of poverty were not realized. This also came with a gift of realizing strengths I did not know I had, and how much more resourceful I could be with what I am given….and putting wealth in perspective. Having things does not make one more valuable…in reality, it is a prison. The more things– the bigger house, nicer car, nicer clothes, etc., –are traps. People end up selling their souls to prove their worth to fellow humans.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you for sharing this post, Dolphin, and for discussing such important insights about privilege and the benefits that sudden adversity can bring in terms of awareness and the discovery of strengths.


    1. It is a fascinating study, Robert. I encourage you to read the full article. Luske documents how quickly the elite takes charge and basks in their privilege, how easily the middle class accepts their not-too-uncomfortable position, and how rapidly the poor class becomes angry and/or alienated.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Very interesting…and complex. I too grew up in between cultures and that has continued till this day where I move on the realms of “mainstream” but all my beliefs, values and dreams fall under “permaculture”. Even in my own country, back in the 70’s, I was an odd child being reaised by a single mother who was also communist and sort of “hippy”…then as a refugee and now as an immigrant. I have learned that my worldview doesn’t match with any of those groups (Argentinean, Venezuelan, refugee, immigrant, woman, mainstream or permaculturist) and not “belonging” gives me the advantage of seeing beyond the obvious in all and everyone of those cultural spaces.
    There is a psychological, almost physiological explanation for why we accept structures, roles, stories and even stereotypes: our brains work with patterns, and create them whenever they don’t exist: we use stereotypes to “organize” information about people, we are selective about the information we take in and we need stories and structures to feel safe and be sane.
    Our “free will” (also an assumption/construct put into our brains by Western civilization) is limited: we behave in many ways as it is expected and we are unconscious of our assumptions, behaviours and reactions most of the time.
    How can we overcome the anger, frustration and pain (first reactions when we “wake up” from the stories being imposed to us) and see that we all (both up and down) are oppressed by the stories and structures around us?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I always enjoy reading the accounts you share about your life, Sylvia. The uniqueness of your background has given you so much depth and so many important insights. And you have raised the central issue in liberatory praxis – how to deal with our anger toward the “oppressors” when we wake up – how do we see them as human like us – unwitting inheritors of a position in an oppressive social structure we all share.

      On a personal level, I know healing comes in stages. It seems as though disproportionate anger can sometimes be re-provoked through the most inane interactions, telling me I have to go deeper in my own journey of healing and forgiveness. Those whose privileges today may come in part from the death, dispossession and suffering of my ancestors were not the perpetrators. It’s also likely that their ancestors were merely trying to escape their own oppression and unknowingly became pawns of corporate puppeteers who needed an ever-growing supply or raw materials, labor, and consumers.

      Luske’s students came to a profound decision – not to punish the elite even though many became arrogant and smug. In real life, I suspect that will be much harder to achieve this type of inclusive resolution. I think each one of us who can (and I’m not always sure I can) has to do our own internal work on forgiveness and be willing to buffer the former elite from angry retribution someday…

      That’s certainly not what happened in the French revolution, and unless our educational systems are fundamentally changed (or charismatic, wise religious leaders like the Pope arise) – and very soon – it’s hard to imagine how to transition peacefully from where we are now to where we need to be if we’re to survive. I do believe it’s possible based on what I have seen in many of my students, and from many people in the blogging network.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I find it much easier to forgive those who hurt me, my loved ones and the millions of Argentinians and Latinos in general who had been displaced by coup d’etat, civil wars, etc. than to forgive those who today hurt the natural systems in such depth that there is no possible recovery…I suffer when I see what one human being can do to an entire town, but when I see an entire species to suffer and become extinct, my anger and my pain have no limits…that’s what I’m seeing now that I decided to study plants and ecosystems in a more “formal” way. Life is sacred. There is no forgiveness there…:(

        Liked by 2 people

  4. Will read and reflect on this when my posting eyes are rested. Thanks for visiting my deceivingly short offering on Vienna. It took a slow guy like me a ton of historic research labour pains via Wikipedia to deliver. On capitalism I stand shivering, as you know, with Naomi Klein and her, hopefully influential disciple, Pope Francis. Capitalism is a relative newcomer to social systems. I look upon the ancient as having more promise in the long run.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. In the early feminist movement, a common technique to neutralize the more assertive, dominant and successfully capitalist women was to employ a fishbowl process: the shyer, less assertive (and usually more working class women) interacted with each other in the inner circle – while the more dominant women were required to sit in the outer circle and observe without speaking.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I’ve been through exercises similar to this but they were related to people recognizing background/economic differences – not role playing. What I find interesting is the assumption by students that the people they would interview would be similar to them. I don’t know if it’s because I was raised in an Air Force family and never spent more than two years in any school and was always around different people – but I’ve always reveled in the variety of people – but always felt like an outsider, even with black people. Interesting studies.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Being on the margins as you were, Skywalker, is a fascinating vantage point – there are so many important lessons about the amazing diversity that is everywhere. Yet as you point out, the downside is always feeling like an outsider. That’s one of the reasons Kahlil Gibran’s work The Prophet resonates so deeply with my experiences.


  7. Ok sorry about being so late but I just got home and have access to my computer, so here it is the official nomination!:

    Dear Carol, I would like to nominate you for the Encouraging Thunder Award, please take a look here: And don’t feel pressured to do it. It is just my way to say I love your blog! Thank you

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Great article, Carol – and one that it was important to share. We often forget that we need to really stop and think because all of our perceptions are based on ourselves first.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. very interesting + I agree with above comments:-) If more classroom time was spent on these sort of “insightful” projects we would have great leaders!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. A really interesting article, it amazes me their is so much prejudice in todays society. I like to think I don’t hold such prejudice but fear I have been tainted by media to believe them. Have you read the book the ‘The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better’ is a book by Richard G. Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, it’s amazing. To me it was like the scientific version of the Dalai Lama’s book.

    An interesting observation I have had recently is that of the media trying to bring these prejudices against protestors/activist in an effort to discredit their important message. In our media you very often only see pictures of certain characters one might stereotypically associate with a protest, emphasising the prejudice, when I know their are often people from all walks of life.

    But we know this is not true a nice clip here from our recent anti fracking protest. Which resulted in the Fracking application being declined (also due to the descry of shallow threats but Caudrilla)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your important comments, and for the recommended reading and video link, Equality. I haven’t read the book you mentioned, although the title suggests something that makes sense. People who share and work together rather than those who compete are more able to come up with creative solutions to collective problems and do so in ways that build enduring understanding and relationships – the foundation of community.

      You also raise a crucial point about the media’s role in discrediting resistance by portraying stereotypes of protesters – which makes the video you shared so important. Police really have much more in common with ordinary folks than they do with the elite…


      1. Yes I could not agree more. It was the best protest I have been too the police actually engaged in conversation. Even agreeing as much as they could under their rules, it really renewed my faith. We are making ground and this makes me so happy.
        I believe they have made a film based on the Spirit Level called the Divide, i’ve not seen it yet as it’s only just come out and is not showing everywhere (as you can imagine), well worth tracking down.

        Liked by 1 person

  11. Can’t comment on the role-playing experiment. Not my area ant, I would think, hard to get right, especially with the temptation to please one’s evaluator.. But the two lists of adjectives and the present emphasis put on traits that won’t help us as our problems increase in complexity were things I can deeply appreciate. Making people question their attitudes is best done before they harden. Getting themus out of their/our calcifying routines produces genuine soul searching. Thanks, Carol.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for sharing important insights, Bob. It is always challenging to create opportunities for people to question their attitudes without making them feel defensive or personally deficient or ridiculed. One can only hope that it helps in the long run 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Hi Carol,

    I admit that in reading your article I am a bit at sea. Of course, the disorientation on my part stems from differences in enculturation and life experience, to the manner in which over the last 56 years of my life I have come to perceive and parse the world around me, this reality that is really a multifaceted projection of what I reflexively regard and experience as objective reality, aspects of which are pure illusion.

    I have to confess that I have never been a good student. I’m not speaking about grades. I’m speaking about my abiding distaste for the formal institutional settings in which we Westerners are gently coaxed into looking at things just ‘so,’ even if with a permitted margin of discretion. Formal education, which can admittedly avail a person of the means to reflect critically and thus truly loosen the fetters of cultural conditioning, can also result, if somewhat paradoxically, in a tightening of those fetters by the foreclosing of critical acumen in certain directions.

    Education, to my mind, then, cuts both ways, and so my instinct is to be suspicious of what might be the hidden agenda, so to speak, behind ‘educating’ cadres of professionals to serve as adjutants, so to speak, in predefined institutional roles, and especially roles ostensibly designed as putative interventions on behalf of the socially marginalized, to offer ‘help’ to those presumed to need it most.

    For roughly ten years I worked as a child care worker in a variety of group homes in Ottawa. My experience, what I saw and what I witnessed in terms of ‘interventions’ which were supposed to benefit children deemed to be at risk, convinced me that more harm rather than good tended to be the result of our efforts, and because nothing at all was being done in ‘systemic’ terms to obviate the destitution and poverty which in the minds of privileged case workers and administrators placed children in situations of ‘perceived’ neglect ( — occasionally the risks were real, but just as often children were being removed from the custody of their uncouth kin simply because, to my mind, the living arrangements and habits of the families that had been flagged did not adequately ‘mirror’ so called ‘middle class’ standards – ) it seemed to me that the entire enterprise was more of a boondoggle than an essential service.

    Furthermore, the resources at the disposal of the outreach efforts were utterly inadequate. For one thing, the remuneration for the front line workers were in effect poverty wages, and because of this, the turnover in staff was inordinately and unacceptably high, sometimes leaving the more committed staff to work days on end until replacements were found, a situation that would ironically result in a neglect of their own families and kids; in addition, because the pay was so paltry, the ‘job’ tended to attract individuals who rightly had no business working with children.

    Thus not only was the staffing situation so untenable that in and of itself it was a form of child abuse, but adding insult to that injury, the workers themselves were being roundly abused.
    I left the ‘profession,’ if we can call it that, in complete disgust and thoroughly disillusioned. For all the good that the government care-providers were actually able to do, hamstrung as they were in the means with which to do their work, everyone involved, I genuinely believed, would have been better off if under the circumstances the inner city poor in their poverty had just been left alone. Have things changed? I have no idea nor any interest in finding out. And I remain convinced, that like charity, these kinds of ‘interventions’ do nothing at all to really improve the lives of those least fortunate among us, and sometimes end up making things worse.

    On the other hand, I witnessed firsthand the kinds of insensitivities of which you write and which you try to address and redress among your students. Absolutely, better educated and trained social workers cannot but improve the quality of the help that as an emergency stopgap should absolutely be provided to distressed families. The social change that needs to happen to reduce poverty in a meaningful way will simply not come quickly enough to alleviate the suffering of those presently in need. But in the long run, social welfare, like charity and unemployment insurance, fails to address the fundamental cause of the dislocations welfare interventions were created to address.

    Kind regards,


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for sharing your experiences, observations, and insights about the many failures of the academy and the institutions it preserves, Norman. Some of the issues you’ve raised are discussed in the book I’m working on (child welfare), and others I described in an older post: Even in academia, one can attempt to teach from the perspective of liberatory praxis, but many faculty and students from privileged backgrounds are threatened. Toward the end of my rather short academic career I wondered if I had done a disservice to my students by encouraging them to challenge hegemony ( The push-back can be powerful and potentially destructive to one’s health and spirit. Thomas Kuhn’s work ( is a reminder of how hard the status quo fights to preserve their notions of how the world works with troubling consequences for those who see different possibilities…

      Liked by 1 person

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