How Impactful is an Individual on Society?


In getting into a philosophical debate the other night with a friend, I realized society has no measurement or parameters for an individual’s impact on humanity. Self-identifying as a realist, he was arguing that most individual people have no effect on society or the direction our humanity takes. My argument was that every individual effects our society, and, thus humanity. My statement centers around on an individual’s effects on other people. Generally, we have no idea the impact we have on others around us because we don’t ask each other. However, what we say, what we do, and how we act can greatly change another person’s perception of the world and “their society.” From this sense, impact works through our social networks and is a ripple effect. Whether individuals realize it or not, every person impacts the course of humanity. Some individuals clearly have a larger impact than others. Martin Luther King, Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, and Mother Theresa are just a few that drastically altered the course of humanity. These individuals were visionaries for their times, but their experiences and what led them to become visionaries were shaped by others around them. Other individuals impacted Martin Luther King and Ghandi’s perceptions and, thus through social networks, impacted society. Impact is like water drop creating a ripple effect. It can’t always be seen and is virtually silent. So how do you measure something this intangible? Can an invention or formula be created? Economists are able to measure countries relative happiness through a variety of measures, such as the Happy Planet Index and the OECD Better Life Index. One of the problems is that happiness is subjective. This would also pose a problem in measuring impact. Impactful is subjective and in the eye of the impacted. Another potential method would be to use Network Theory, which is the study of complex interacting systems that can be represented as graphs equipped with extra structure.  Network theory is very formula-focused, complicated, and difficult to conduct studies. It would be nearly impossible to gather all the necessary information (of social circles, information, and individuals) to accurately measure impact-fulness of individuals. If Mr. Musk were able to create a formula, measurement or index, it would change how we as individuals see our position in society. It would change society’s notion of the individual.

Top Image: http://blogs.newcastle.edu.au/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/481704019.jpg Bottom Image: http://www.replicatedtypo.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/largestComponent_Networks.png

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4 thoughts on “How Impactful is an Individual on Society?”

  1. I think that all people have the potential or opportunity to have an impact on society. Not everyone will have an effect on society, but people do have the potential to do so. I think that having a way to measure an individual’s impact on society would greatly influence the way people think about their role within society. I like how you offer possible methods to your solution.

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  2. The ability to measure our impact on others’ lives and on society would greatly alter our self perceptions and our perceptions of how we should live within the world. While reading your post, it occurred to me that the measurement of our impact on society and others would also highlight how we negatively impact each other and the world. This would make individuals take more responsibility for their actions, as they would no longer be shielded from the ramifications of their decisions. Did you also think about the measurement of corporations impact on society? Do you think an invention of this type would lead individuals to act more responsibly in order to create a positive impact on society rather than a negative impact?

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  3. So cool! We could track how one’s actions and links lead to positive change…

    MLK said that good acts ripple out, and this metaphor could be turned into something measurable.

    And, at the same time, we could pay attention to the network structures which magnify individual differences.

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  4. Ultimately, I think the most we do is to create the means for others to take action. In other words, MLK was less important for his words or deeds then he was for creating a movement.

    To me, this is the point of Mills and the Sociological Imagination: when we realize the public, structural causes of troubles and see them as issues, we can create common cause and engage in collective action.

    Individualism is over-rated… as a model of social change.

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