Intro to Sociology classes are frequently the first and only contact many students will have with the discipline, which also makes Intro textbooks an important platform for public sociology engagement. In this Dialogues series, we interviewed four authors of Intro to Sociology textbooks and asked them to explore how their textbooks can facilitate students’ first encounter with sociology while also promoting the reflection and practice of public sociology. In our first interview, we talked to Professor Dalton Conley, author of You May Ask Yourself: An Introduction to Thinking Like a Sociologist, already in its 7th edition.

First Publics: Thank you again for joining us, Dalton. I wonder if you could start by telling us about your motivation to write an intro to sociology textbook, including what your goals were and how you hoped your textbook would be used.

Dalton Conley: This is now 20 years ago, scary to say, but I was supposed to write a research methods textbook. I’m very interested in sociology as an empirical social science. I know there’s a tension in the field between that goal of sociology and sociology as kind of an agent of social change. I’m definitely in the former camp. I want it to be a science, a human science. So, I had this idea to do a research methods textbook that used case studies, as they do in law schools or business schools. I would go and interview, for example, Mitchell Duneier, who is now my chair. He made certain methodological choices in using real names or in doing member checking with his ethnography, with his whole book (Sidewalk). This was very unheard of back then. He got all his key informants into a hotel room and read them the manuscript, and they all argued about it. Anyway, I would interview him and talk about that case, his study of doing an ethnography of street vendors in New York City, and at certain points, I would make the content interactive with the students and discuss these choices and what they imply. I love that idea and concept. Maybe someday I’ll actually get around to doing that textbook. But when it came to delivering on the contract,  I was going to lunch with the editor to tell him that I just could not do it. I was too overwhelmed with other stuff. 

I didn’t have the time to invest in doing all these sorts of interviews and fully develop the case studies. When I showed up to lunch, it wasn’t just my editor there. It was like three people from W.W. Norton, including the vice president for college publishing. So, I got very intimidated.  They had been talking about how they wanted another Intro text, and they had commissioned one, but it didn’t work out. I taught Intro to Sociology for a number of years by then, so I said, “Oh, Intro, forget research methods. I could do an Intro textbook in six months”. I was just joking, but they took me up on it, and I decided to do it.  

I just thought I would transcribe my lectures and then that would be the basis of a textbook that I would build on. After editing out all the “ums” and the “ahs” and all the announcements about homework and other housekeeping items for the class, it was a really thin stack of pages. Yes, it could be an outline or a backbone, but it really wasn’t enough for a textbook. So, I got to work, and it was definitely more than six months, maybe two and a half years. My goal with it was to do the same thing I was doing with research methods: to show sociology as a scientific enterprise and engage in important debates. The textbooks I had seen up until that point had been organized around theories. For instance, they would look at gender through conflict theory, Marxist theory, and an interactionist perspective. It was just like a cookie cutter, one chapter after another, like, “How do these different theories explain this phenomenon?”  I just thought that that wasn’t interesting and that’s not teaching students how to think like they’re supposed to, to be critical skeptics, and hypothesis formers and hypothesis testers. So, I did it in a different way – organize around paradoxes and then empirical research questions for every topic. That was a long time ago.  The textbook evolved over time and added different features, and we are busy adding more now, actually. 

First Publics: How are you hoping instructors use the text?

Dalton Conley: I try to make it an entire course in a box. Obviously, I don’t want to step on an instructor’s autonomy, and people can use it however they want, but I want to make it sort of a textbook of this day and age when most people are using ebooks, and they are multimedia. The textbook is kind of a buffet that an instructor can selectively deploy. Some instructors might want to use the videos, in which the various sociologists and some non-sociologists that are relevant to particular topics are interviewed, and they could use that content in their lectures to illustrate certain concepts. Others might want to eschew those completely and use it as a straight textbook that students are required to read before they get to class so they have a deeper understanding of the topic of that day, and they build on that.  I think we’re trying to serve the whole range of instructor and student needs with these different kinds of materials, like the InQuizitive tool, which involves interactive, adaptive quizzing of key concepts. We’re adding new features. We had sociological practice in the last edition, which tried to get people to think about concepts and apply them to their own lives. Now, sticking to our alliterative theme of “Ps,” we’re adding professionalization, which involves using certain skills students learn from sociological studies and bringing them into the wider world. That includes critical thinking, data literacy, study design, and things like that that would be useful skills for white-collar employers that hire a sociologist.

First Publics: Can you tell us a little bit about how textbooks in general, and your textbook in particular, can help teachers and students practice public sociology? Do you think your textbook promotes that goal? And if so, could you give us some examples?

Dalton Conley: Well, first I’d say that I consider the textbook probably the most important form of public sociology I have done in my life because it’s reaching more people at an important formative age, trying to shape how they view big public issues, as C. Wright Mills has put it. How can an instructor help students to be public sociologists? In every chapter, we try to take a very counterintuitive or off-the-beaten-path policy idea and think about it from a sociological perspective. I consider that part of public sociology.  

On another dimension, all sociologies have become more public sociology and engaged in important debates more as the world has moved toward sociology, sociological concepts, and understandings. In fact, I haven’t taught Intro in the classroom other than guest lecturing for quite some time now. When I think back to when I first taught Intro to Sociology, I would talk about how gender is not just a binary, or that gender can determine sex as much as sex can determine gender or talking about race as a social construction. I don’t know if this is true, but I felt like I was blowing their minds at the time. In some ways, I feel all that, not in all sectors of society, but for many college students, those ideas have already been inculcated into the culture, and the students have kind of a more intuitive understanding of those concepts, probably than even I do, because of my generation. So, I feel like getting young students to think as public sociologists in some ways is easier, in some ways harder. They’re already thinking that way, on the one hand. On the other hand, in pushing them further to understand big issues or to question their own orthodoxy that might be in line with sociological mainstream thinking, my goal is not for them to have certain views about certain topics, but to have a way of thinking and engaging with public issues that is critical and skeptical. I think that part might be harder these days. 

I consider the textbook probably the most important form of public sociology I have done in my life because it’s reaching more people at an important formative age, trying to shape how they view big public issues, as C. Wright Mills has put it.

– Dalton Conley

First Publics: What forms of political and practical challenges can arise while writing textbooks with public sociology in mind? How have you tried to address some of those challenges? 

Dalton Conley: That’s a good question. I’d say one of the big challenges I’ve encountered is that our social understanding of American society and social norms have evolved so rapidly. It’s very difficult to keep up with that in the textbook. For example, in one section about how colleges are adapting to non-binary students, we’ll talk about the college experience a lot because we want to be relatable to the students themselves. I gave the example of the pronoun “zee”, which was for a while in the running for a third, gender-neutral pronoun. But by the time the book came out, it was very clearly entrenched that “they” was the non-binary pronoun of choice in the U.S. So, we looked really odd and out of place. The next edition, which we’re doing now, is going to change that. 

As another example, I have been going back and forth over whether to use “Latinx” or “Latino” or whether to capitalize “Black” and “White.” I’ve read so much scholarship from philosophers and social scientists on these subjects. For example, in the current edition we use capital “B” and capital “W” for “Black” and “White.” In that choice, I was following the philosopher Anthony Appiah’s ideas that because both categories are social constructs, they should both get capitalization.  But The New York Times, for example, capitalizes “Black” but not “White” because they say that there’s a Black experience that’s unifying that there’s not for Whites. But I thought, and I’ve written about this, that that’s not true, that Whites have a unifying experience of privilege, of all sorts of things. And as for Whiteness, the fact that it would be lowercase is like playing into the idea that it’s a default category when it should be “undefaulted,” if that is a verb. So, I ended up capitalizing White too, which I hope people, if they read the preface, will understand. That’s where I explain the logic of it. I hope they won’t just jump to conclusions that I’m trying to assert white nationalism or something like that. I used Latinx in these last two editions, but if I have my druthers, I will probably switch back to Latino and just mix it up with Latino and Latina, because survey data shows that something like 93% of the Latino population does not like the term Latinx. I mean, it’s very imperialistic: it makes no sense to have an X at the end of a word in a Latin language like that. But at the time I thought that often the academic vanguard is out in front of the general population, like we saw with gender fluidity or non-binary gender identities, and I should be representing that vanguard and not the resistance of most people. But the thing that tipped me over to switch back is the notion that it really is a kind of linguistic imperialism. These are the things I’m struggling with, and I don’t know the right answer. But I feel like the next edition’s going to drop the X, though I’m not doing another edition for a couple of years. So, by then, maybe it’ll be something completely different. That’s going back to the original point: things are happening very fast and I find that very challenging. It’s always challenging in sociology that we’re studying the world we’re living in and that it’s changing, and we’re affecting it just by studying it and by what we publish, and do, and argue.

First Publics: We know that students, in general, represent multiple publics. Can you speak a little bit on the ways you hope your textbook is inclusive and accessible for students with various backgrounds and experiences? In what ways have you considered the various publics your textbooks serve?

Dalton Conley: There are various publics. We talked about demographic or racial-ethnic identities. In guest videos, whose work I highlight in the book, I try to be as broad and inclusive as possible. Then, there are issues of ability status. I’ve been hearing impaired over the last 10 years, so I’m very sensitive to that issue, for example. All of our interactive activities in the ebook or on the website, if you get the regular book and log onto the website, are accessible by visually impaired or hearing impaired people. There’s more and more gender diversity represented in the pages as well. So, again, it’s an evolving thing, just like the field, or society, is as well. But given intersectionality, it’s going to be hard to represent every possible intersectional identity in the book, even if it’s almost 1,000 pages. That’s just a reality. There are so many different configurations of identity when we think of Simmel’s web of group affiliations and who the individual is. But I hope that, by covering some of the broader categories, people will see themselves in it. 

First Publics: I hadn’t thought about that, but I imagine there are just so many different choices you have to make along the way about what to include and not to include.

Dalton Conley: This is a book that I want to be used by first-year community college students and senior sociology majors in highly selective colleges. I’ve seen other textbooks kind of oversimplify things, forgive the expression, dumb it down. But I want to reach a broad audience without doing that, which is challenging sometimes.

Dalton Conley is the Henry Putnam University Professor in Sociology and a faculty affiliate at the Office of Population Research and the Center for Health and Wellbeing at Princeton University.  He is also a Research Associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), and in a pro bono capacity he serves as Dean of Health Sciences for the University of the People, a tuition-free, accredited, online college committed to expanding access to higher education. Conley’s scholarship has primarily dealt with the intergenerational transmission of socioeconomic and health status from parents to children.