Teaching sociology students to see beyond the individual and toward the social is challenging, but crucial. For the last few semesters I have started this conversation by talking about the economy. I have my students come up with a list of qualities we assume a person has if they are unemployed. “Lazy!”, one student chimes out. “They want to live off of the system,” another says. “It’s their fault,” another student inevitably says. Every class is a little different, but the list of personal qualities almost always paints the unemployed as lazy individuals who either made bad choices (e.g. failing a drug test) or were not good workers (e.g. habitually being late to work).

This week I showed my classes this map of unemployment in the United States from January 2007 to May of this year:

As the map becomes consumed with the dark shade of unemployment I ask them, “Is laziness contagious? Is making bad choices or being a lousy employee contagious?” After a few chuckles from the students I say, “Of course not, so something bigger than the individual is happening. Something social is occurring that individuals can’t escape.” I then ask the class to break up into small groups and answer this question, “How have you or a loved one been affected by the downturn in the economy?”

This question is a sociological question. For students to answer it they have to think about how their individual lives have been affected by social conditions. When students start sharing some of the hurts that they have experienced in this economy it helps the entire class break free of a solely individualistic world view. It also lays the ground work for creating a classroom environment where sharing how you have been affected by society is acceptable. I have yet to have a student be anything but supportive for their fellow classmates.