Photo by Kayla Kandzorra, Flickr CC
Photo by Kayla Kandzorra, Flickr CC

Professors of sociology often struggle to introduce sociological concepts in new and thought-provoking ways to their students. According to a recent article in Bowling Green Daily News, Professor Bertena Varney is tackling this issue in an unconventional way and using the Harry Potter series to engage her students with various sociological topics. In her “Inequality in Society” class at Southern Kentucky Community and Technological College, Varney sorts students into the houses of Hogwarts and each day a specific house leads class discussion on social issues. For example, the students apply the Harry Potter terminology of “muggles” and “squibs” to a discussion of the disabled and mentally challenged.

Not only do the students use Harry Potter to understand concepts, but they also engage in community service, tutoring, and social media in order to compete for the house cup, which awards the winning house fifty points of extra credit at the end of the semester. Varney also views this immersion structure as providing students with future skills outside of the classroom, saying:

“Once you get them thinking about other people besides themselves, they take off. It teaches them a lot of social skills and problem solving … [and] it’s easier for students to find out how they can work together to make the world a better place. ”

When professors use magical teaching methods like Varney, students are so entranced by the material that anti-cheating spells are no longer necessary!  

Looks like a practical type. Photo by Nic McPhee, Flickr Creative Commons.
Looks like a practical type. Photo by Nic McPhee, Flickr Creative Commons.

“What’s your major?”

Often the reasons for choosing engineering or English extend beyond the student’s enthusiasm for the subject. Sociologist Kim Weeden explains to The Atlantic that parental income can play a part: students from wealthy families are more likely to study humanities and fine arts, while their lower-income peers tend to choose more “practical” majors like physics, engineering, or computer science. Weeden says:

It’s … consistent with the claim that kids from higher-earning families can afford to choose less vocational or instrumental majors, because they have more of a buffer against the risk of un- or under-employment.

In other words, if wealthy students cannot get lucrative jobs with a ceramics or history degree, they have a monetary safety net. NYU’s Dalton Conley elaborates:

It might seem like there’s a lot of social mobility that the offspring of doctors are artists, or what have you, but maybe they traded off occupational autonomy and freedom … They still have a high education level and they still have wealth.

Future employment is not the only explanation for why students from different income brackets choose their courses of study. Often, students from higher-income families have more prior exposure to arts, music, and literature, sparking an interest in these areas before college. Furthermore, according to Conley, the prestige of a major and its associated careers may matter more than the size of the actual paycheck:

There’s a notion that what people are maximizing is not income, per se, or wealth, per se, or prestige, per se, but just there’s a general sense of social class, and people in each generation make trade-offs.

A fine arts degree may have fewer career opportunities, but it also has an association with high socioeconomic status that a law enforcement degree does not.

Business Cards
Photo by Curtis Gregory Perry via flickr.com

Admittedly, I know little about Pinterest. But judging by the site’s membership, now topping 10 million worldwide, many of you are familiar with the social media site. Members have been “pinning” their favorite items—images, videos, messages, etc.—to themed, virtual pin boards since 2010. Nor am I representative of most sociologists: just check out the contributions from Gwen Sharp and Lisa Wade over at Sociological Images or the teaching-centric boards compiled by self-professed public sociologists at The Sociological Cinema to see what I mean.

Beyond how it’s already being used, Deborah Lupton, a sociologist at the University of Sydney, suggests in The Australian that Pinterest also offers a creative way to organize research materials. Lupton has created a board for each of her areas of intellectual inquiry. As Lupton explains, “Because of its emphasis on the visual; [Pinterest is] perfect for curating and displaying images that are related to the subject matter one is researching or teaching.”

So whether you’re planning your summer travel itinerary, next semester’s syllabus, or your next research grant—tap in to the inspiration!

Photo by Josh Parrish via flickr.com
Photo by Josh Parrish via flickr.com

In explaining the purpose of a “whiteness studies” course—the kind offered at dozens of colleges and universities in the United States—Alex P. Kellogg of CNN.com writes:

The field argues that white privilege still exists, thanks largely to structural and institutional racism, and that the playing field isn’t level… educators teach how people of different races and ethnicities often live very different lives… The field has its roots in the writing of black intellectuals such as W.E.B. DuBois and author James Baldwin.

Still, “In the past, detractors have said the field itself demonizes people who identify as white.” So, then, how did the courses manage to continue, and why are they seemingly on the way out now?

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, a sociologist at Duke and the University of Pennsylvania, tells the reporter:

Having Obama is, in a curious way, putting us behind… You have a growing racial apathy. People are telling you, I don’t want to hear about race, because we’re beyond that… But we still have a white America and a Black America.

Another sociologist, Charles Gallagher of Philadelphia’s La Salle University, said that he still has to convince his students that inequality exists. “Gallagher, whose latest book Retheorizing Race and Whiteness in the 21st Century was published last year,” writes Kellogg, ” is teaching intro to sociology and urban sociology classes this semester, and while neither is strictly about race, he says he will make a point to talk about modern day racism and white privilege.” Still, “he expects his students—and increasingly, some who are black—will be there ready to push back, particularly on the notion that race still determines your lot in life.” Gallagher asks:

How do we talk about race or racism in the United States if people think racism is gone?

The article moves on to discussing whether, rather than being privileged, whites, as some suggest, are actually racially oppressed. Charles Mills, a philosopher at Northwestern, argues, Kellogg says, “that whites in particular have a self-interest in seeing the world as post-racial. In that world, everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed… your success in life [is] not determined by race, but by how hard you work.”

Even as classes on whiteness studies instead seem to be dissolving into interdisciplinary race courses which take the time out to discuss persistent white privilege, academics tell CNN.com that “in the past, conservatives derided whiteness studies as anti-white, but the sharp vitriol against the discipline has largely subsided,” and the field “continues to evolve.” As Kellogg concludes, “While the filed is still little known in some corners, and criticized as being obsolete in others, proponents of… whiteness studies say that’s all part of progress.”


Many of our posts focus on colleagues’ research, but teaching is also newsworthy.  The student newspaper at the University of South Carolina recently ran an article about an upcoming sociology course at USC—Lady Gaga and the Sociology of Fame.

The professor, Mathieu Deflem, explained the idea behind the course:

“We’re going to look at Lady Gaga as a social event,” Deflem said. “So it’s not the person, and it’s not the music. It’s more this thing out there in society that has 10 million followers on Facebook and six million on Twitter. I mean, that’s a social phenomenon. It’s a global social phenomenon. So the central question of the course is, this fame, which is ironically also the theme of her first records, how can it be accounted for? What are some of the mechanisms and some of the conditions of Lady Gaga’s rise to popularity?”

Deflem added that another key question of the course is, “What does it mean, and how does a person become famous?”

Deflem usually teaches criminology, the sociology of law, and policing, but he is excited to examine the popular social phenomenon in a sociological light.

In the beginning, the course will deal with the sociology of popularity in general. The first couple weeks probably won’t be about Lady Gaga at all. But then the Gaga scenario will be used as a real-life example detailing sociological traits. More specific information about the course content can be found at gagacourse.net – a site Deflem has already created for the class.

Mad Men anachronism.They may be big fans of the show, but some sociologists are calling out historical inaccuracies in AMC’s “Mad Men.” According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

“As historians, most of us just love ‘Mad Men’ — it is so realistic, not just in the details, but in the gender dynamics,” said Stephanie Coontz, a sociologist and professor at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. “But, I think in this case they’ve gotten it wrong.”

Discovering Don was not the man she thought she knew was merely the last straw for Betty, who surely suspected her husband’s many dalliances. So she began a flirtatious relationship with Henry Francis, a well-placed aide to Nelson Rockefeller, the governor of New York.

Henry flew with her to Nevada, where “divorce mills” of the day allowed (mostly) women to establish residency for six weeks, then file for divorce.

But Ms. Coontz, who has authored a number of books examining American life and family, said she doubts someone like Henry would have considered courting a married woman with three young children.

“In 1964, Nelson Rockefeller could not run for president because he was divorced — anyone with high aspirations, unless he was absolutely besotted with love, would never have considered getting involved in a divorce.”

Another sociologist adds:

Christine B. Whelan is visiting assistant professor at Pitt, where she is teaching three classes on the sociology of marriage, gender and everyday life, respectively.

Her American Family course at the University of Iowa last year made occasional reference to “Mad Men,” but to her dismay, the students couldn’t relate.

“I said ‘Listen guys, I’m going to make this required viewing,’ ” Dr. Whelan said, laughing.

A divorced woman in 1963 was a social pariah, she said, but noted that the Drapers are not meant to be viewed as an average couple in average America. “It’s emblematic of a very small slice — not only does Betty get out of her [bad] marriage, she has another man all lined up.”

But the show doesn’t get it all wrong:

One thing “Mad Men” gets right is the neighborhood ladies’ opinion of Helen, an attractive, young divorced mother of two introduced in the first season.

“She is this dangerous creature, and the other women view her as a threat,” Dr. Whelan said.


Ms. Coontz has a new book coming out based on interviews with women who read Betty Friedan’s iconic 1963 writings when they were young — “A Strange Stirring: ‘The Feminine Mystique’ and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s.”

“People say feminists hurt the homemaker, but one of the first reforms was marriage,” she said. In “Mad Men,” “You can see Betty already grappling with the same malaise that my real-life informants went through.”

In season one, Betty realizes while driving the car that she cannot feel her hands.

“Early in the show, her hands go numb, numb just like the 188 women I interviewed for this book who thought, ‘I was crazy,’ or just felt numb. They couldn’t express it, this emptiness and despair.”

Ms. Coontz came across a Gallup poll from December 1962, that indicated American housewives were happy with their lives, but 90 percent said they would advise their daughters to delay marriage and work at a job first.

Don't mess with Texas
Curriculum changes have been approved in the state of Texas, one of the largest buyers of textbooks in the U.S. From the New York Times:

After three days of turbulent meetings, the Texas Board of Education on Friday approved a social studies curriculum that will put a conservative stamp on history and economics textbooks, stressing the superiority of American capitalism, questioning the Founding Fathers’ commitment to a purely secular government and presenting Republican political philosophies in a more positive light.

Proponents cite adding “balance” as an underlying goal:

Since January, Republicans on the board have passed more than 100 amendments to the 120-page curriculum standards affecting history, sociology and economics courses from elementary to high school. The standards were proposed by a panel of teachers.

“We are adding balance,” said Dr. Don McLeroy, the leader of the conservative faction on the board, after the vote. “History has already been skewed. Academia is skewed too far to the left.”

Battles over what to put in science and history books have taken place for years in the 20 states where state boards must adopt textbooks, most notably in California and Texas. But rarely in recent history has a group of conservative board members left such a mark on a social studies curriculum.

Notably, some voices were absent from the discussion:

There were no historians, sociologists or economists consulted at the meetings, though some members of the conservative bloc held themselves out as experts on certain topics.

Changes to history and economics curriculum include revisions to sections on the history of the civil rights movement, the conservative resurgence of the ’80s and ’90s, the separation of church and state, U.S. internment practices during WWII, McCarthyism, affirmative action, and Title IX. Additionally:

In the field of sociology, another conservative member, Barbara Cargill, won passage of an amendment requiring the teaching of “the importance of personal responsibility for life choices” in a section on teenage suicide, dating violence, sexuality, drug use and eating disorders.

“The topic of sociology tends to blame society for everything,” Ms. Cargill said.

Read about more approved changes.

The Chicago Tribune noted that sociology students from Northern Illinois University are headed to Florida for spring break, but…

they won’t be relaxing in the sunshine.

They plan to build two Habitat for Humanity homes in four days.

Jack King of NIU’s Department of Sociology leads the annual outing. NIU crews have helped the nonprofit build about 25 homes in the Pensacola, Fla., area over the years.

Sociology graduate and undergraduate students come back, some year after year, to lend a hand.

Admiração:BBC News recently reported on the concept of “parental determinism,” as discussed by Kent University (England) sociology professor Frank Furedi:

There was a pervading prejudice that virtually all of society’s problems were caused by poor parenting.  There was an attempt to “weed out” unfit parents and intervene before they even had children, he said.  In an article for Spiked online, he likened “parental determinism” to Hitler’s eugenics and Stalinism.

He said: “The idea of a one-dimensional causal relationship between parenting and socioeconomic outcomes, dreamt up by the British think-tanks and policy makers, threatens to take public discourse to a new low.

He points to the roots of “parental determinism” in Britain:

The idea of early intervention was conceived by Tony Blair’s regime which “promoted the fantasy that the government could fix society’s problems by getting its hands on the nation’s toddlers before their parents had chance to ruin them”.

“He believed it was possible to spot tomorrow’s ‘problem people’ even before they were born,” he added.  This notion of parental determinism allowed politicians to promote the “most absurd prejudices…Over the weekend, Iain Duncan Smith the former Tory leader, argued that children from broken homes and dysfunctional families have underdeveloped brains and start school with the mental capacity of one-year-olds,” he said.

Furedi argues that “parental determinism” is particularly damaging in the realm of education:

This was because of the way it could erode adult responsibility and authority, he said.  If adults were reluctant or confused about giving guidance to the younger generation, then the challenge facing the teacher in the classroom could be “overwhelming”, he said.  “It is hard to be the last bastion of authority in a society where adult authority seems to be crumbling,” he added.

He called for adult authority to be affirmed both in and out of the classroom and for the relationship between parents and teachers to be re-drawn.  “There is a difference between raising children and educating them, and this distinction must be re-established to allow for a clearer and more constructive relationship between parents and teachers,” he concluded.

Click here to read Furedi’s full article in Spiked.

100B8130The New York Times recently featured an op-ed by David Brooks on the role of sports in American society.  Commenting on the teachings of sociologist Eugen Rosenstock Huessy:

He used literary and other allusions when he wanted to talk about ethics, community, mysticism and emotion. But none of the students seemed to get it. Then, after a few years, he switched to sports analogies. Suddenly, everything clicked.

“The world in which the American student who comes to me at about twenty years of age really has confidence in is the world of sport,” he would write. “This world encompasses all of his virtues and experiences, affection and interests; therefore, I have built my entire sociology around the experiences an American has in athletics and games.”

Brooks summarizes Michael Allen Gillespie’s take on how American sports are organized:

Throughout Western history, Gillespie argues, there have been three major athletic traditions. First, there was the Greek tradition. Greek sports were highly individualistic. There was little interest in teamwork. Instead sports were supposed to inculcate aristocratic virtues like courage and endurance. They gave individuals a way to achieve eternal glory.

Then, there was the Roman tradition. In ancient Rome, free men did not fight in the arena. Roman sports were a spectacle organized by the government. The free Romans watched while the slaves fought and were slaughtered. The entertainment emphasized the awesome power of the state.

Finally, there was the British tradition. In the Victorian era, elite schools used sports to form a hardened ruling class. Unlike the Greeks, the British placed tremendous emphasis on team play and sportsmanship. If a soccer team committed a foul, it would withdraw its goalie to permit the other team to score. The object was to inculcate a sense of group loyalty, honor and rule-abidingness — traits that were important to a class trying to manage a far-flung empire.

Gillespie argues that the American sports ethos is a fusion of these three traditions. American sport teaches that effort leads to victory, a useful lesson in a work-oriented society. Sport also helps Americans navigate the tension between team loyalty and individual glory. We behave like the British, but think like the Greeks, A. Bartlett Giamatti, a former baseball commissioner, once observed.

Brooks also makes the case for the role of collective effervescence that college sports provide:

Several years ago, I arrived in Madison, Wis., for a conference. It was Saturday morning, and as my taxi got close to campus, I noticed people dressed in red walking in the same direction. At first it was a trickle, then thousands. It looked like the gathering of a happy Midwestern cult, though, of course, it was the procession to a football game.

In a segmented society, big-time college sports are one of the few avenues for large-scale communal participation. Mass college sports cross class lines. They induce large numbers of people in a region to stop, at the same time, and share common emotional experiences.

The crowds at big-time college sporting events do not sit passively, the way they do at a movie theater. They roar, suffer and invent chants (especially at Duke basketball games). Mass college sports are the emotional hubs at the center of vast networks of analysis, criticism and conversation. They generate loyalties that are less harmful than ethnic loyalties and emotional morality plays that are at once completely meaningless and totally consuming.