Textbooks often promise to teach your students how to “think like a sociologist,” but what do they actually do? Most simply relay sociological theories and research findings to your students. That is, they tell your students what sociologists think, but not how sociologists think. But come to think of it, the very same thing could be said for how I often teach sociology and how it was taught to me.
Most of my undergraduate sociology education could be roughly described as my teacher saying to the class, “watch me as I sociologically analyze this aspect of society.” Then once the teacher reached their conclusion they would step back and say, “See? Did you see how I came to that conclusion?” If the whole class was still lost the professor would pick another similar topic and sociologically analyze it. And again s/he would ask, “do you get it now?” In the absence of direct instruction, sociological thinking is taught through repetition, trial and error, and inferred meaning.
“But there is no one way to think sociologically!” I imagine many of you are shouting in your mind. When discussing thinking like a sociologist with colleagues I am often told that there really isn’t a sociology to speak of, but rather many different sociologies tenuously connected under an umbrella term. This is a cop out. Especially for a discipline that prides itself in seeing commonalities within absurdly complex systems.
I completely agree that there are ways of thinking that are specific to sub-disciplines within sociology, but I reject the idea that these ways of thinking are mutually exclusive. I’m arguing that there are a set of habits of thought, recipes of understanding, ideologies, mental frameworks, heuristic devices, and so on that almost every sociologist uses when analyzing the social world, but we rarely teach them to our students directly.
Stop and think about it this fact for a second. See the familiar as strange for a moment. Isn’t this peculiar? Why would people tasked with teaching novices how to think like sociologists and become the sociologists of tomorrow not explicitly teach their students how to think like sociologists?
Why We Don’t Teach How To Think Like a Sociologist
I do not empirically know why instructors would not teach the mechanics of sociological thought, but I have a list of suspects- skill mastery chief among them. Instructors have practiced sociological thinking to the point that it no longer requires effortful thinking. Sociological thinking is automatic for us. This is not to say that sociological thinking is easy, but rather that with practice your mind can skip steps and your intuitive judgment is more accurate (Ambrose et al. 2010; Beilock, Wierenga, and Carr 2002; Lansdown 2002; Smith and Chamberlin 1992).
Second, I think many of us struggle to find the words to express the mechanics of our thought process because we lack the requisite metacognition. We just do it, we don’t know how we do it.
Finally, within sociology and within communities of sociologists the legacy of how sociology has been taught in the past creates a structural/cultural force that says, “this is what sociology is and how it should be taught.” This is how I’ve seen 101 taught and this is how I am most comfortable teaching. No one taught me directly how to think sociologically and I turned out alright.
Next Week’s Topic: Sociology’s Imagination & Sociology as a Skill
- Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., Norman, M. K., & Mayer, R. E. (2010). How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
- Beilock, S. L ., S. A. Wierenga, and T. H. Carr. 2002. “Expertise, Attention and Memory in Sensor Motor Skill Execution: Impact of Novel Task Constraints on Dual-Task Performance and Episodic Memory.” The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology: A Human Experimental Psychology. 55(A): 1211–1240.
- Lansdown, T. C. (2002). “Individual differences during driver secondary task performance: verbal protocol and visual allocation findings.” Accident Analysis & Prevention, 34(5), 655–662.
- Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
- Pelton, J. A. (2014). “How Our Majors Believe They Learn Student Learning Strategies in an Undergraduate Theory Course.” Teaching Sociology, 42(4), 277–286.
- Smith, M. D., & Chamberlin, C. J. (1992). “Effect of adding cognitively demanding tasks on soccer skill performance.” Perceptual and Motor Skills, 75(3), 955–961.
Beth LaLonde — February 3, 2015
Your point is well made. We must use PBL and collaborative group work to provide opportunity to do sociology.
Kevin McElmurry — February 3, 2015
Reading this makes me think of drawing on Howie Becker's Tricks of the Trade. I wouldn't assign the book to intro students. But, I might try interpreting some of those insightful tricks for thinking into lesson plans. Thanks for the spark. -KMc
Mike P. — February 7, 2015
A good way of doing this is to distinguish sociological thinking from psychological thinking, the default way our students tend to think. I use "suicide" as an example. I ask why do people commit suicide and write them out on the board. Most give psych explanations "depressed" "lost a job" "broke up a relationship" etc -- very individual ones. Then I introduce Durkheim and show how he thought in the aggregate: singles more than marrieds, Protestants more than Catholics, etc that is, social cohesion -- and illustrate a social structural/group way of explaining reality. Then repeat versions of these kinds of explanations throughout the semester. We explain not why Johnny failed to complete school, but why groups of kids like Johnny tend to fail more than others.
Marta — February 9, 2015
Thanks for this! I don't think any textbooks are tremendously helpful in this regard. I've only taught 101 once, but it was a great experience. The thing that seemed to help the most was: examples, examples, examples, and more examples. Videos, news clips, personal stories—in particular with regard to historical context. We'd gone over Mills and the Sociological Imagination, of course, and when we got to their personal paper, I'd taken for granted that they understood the historical context stuff. Until I got their outlines. I discovered that they were totally confused. It's easy, I think, for kids to see how their families and their more immediate surroundings have influenced their opportunities and their views, but it took more exercise to see the broader stuff.
One of the things that seemed to make it click for them was talking about Columbine and school safety. I was already in high school when it happened, and so I talked about how that sort of thing was new and scary, and we started doing drills, and how previously we really didn't worry about mass school shootings like that. A lot of eyes in my class lit up, and I suddenly got loads of stories of how they—born in the 1990s and having grown up in that reality of school shootings like Columbine—started talking about how they'd always had "gunman" drills and how that kind of reality is something that's totally normal for them.