Big news! Today I’m launching a site that uses pop culture, the news, and media to make learning complex sociological concepts simple. Students will love it because articles are fun, compelling, and relevant to their lives. Teachers will love it because makes it easy to teach using real time examples of sociology straight from the headlines.

Use in Your Classes

What’s great about is that each post comes with assignable questions. Assign articles to your students. Use an article to start a class discussion or as an ice breaker for your lectures. You can even make articles extra credit. is designed to excite your students and to be an invaluable resource to sociology teachers everywhere. uses all the ideas and best practices discussed here on SociologySource to create a site that your students will love. Check out the site, and follow @SocInFocus on Twitter.

Worried Grandma

Professor Palmer,
I regret to inform you that I won’t be able to take today’s exam as my family has suffered a great loss.

Prof Palmer,
This is the worst possible timing, but sadly my grandmother has died and I will be forced to miss our exam today.

Hey, I missed today’s exam because my grandma died, what should I do?

Every semester right around test time I get emails like the ones above. For some reason grandmothers just start dropping1. It’s uncanny. When I start talking about this fact with my students they all smile and laugh quietly. I tell my students in as earnest a voice as possible that this phenomena is a prime candidate for social research. Fortunately for us this research has already been done by Dr. Mike Adams (1990)2.

Adam’s work is clear: Grandmothers3 hear of their grandchild’s exam, become tremendously worried, and die from the stress. My students laugh at this finding, but I go on in earnest. After a short discussion to define a hypothesis, dependent, and independent variable, I ask the students to work with their neighbors to identify all three in Adam’s dead grandma research. After a few minutes students correctly identify all three and I put up this slide:

Dead Grandma Syndrome Hypothesis

It never fails that at some point a student will say, “Professor Palmer this research doesn’t factor in student lying. Most of the students are making it up.” I muster my acting skills I learned in high school drama and through a perplexed look on my face. “No, that can’t be. Students wouldn’t do that. Would they?” If my acting holds gullible students will tell me that desperate students will say or do just about anything to not miss/fail a test. Then we move into a discussion of spurious correlations.

Students must understand how to ask a research question before students can understand that sociology is a science. Activities like the dead grandma can really help your students grasp these fundamental concepts quickly.


1. While this post and my presentation of the dead grandma research is delivered in a tongue and check way I tell my students after the discussion that I have a great deal of reverence for anyone who suffers the loss of a family member. In fact my dear grandmother’s funeral coincided with a test I had as an undergraduate, but I told the professor days in advance and took the test before the exam date.

2. Adams, Mike. 1990. “The Dead Grandmother/Exam Syndrome and the Potential Downfall Of American Society.” The Connecticut Review. Available at:

3. The research reports that Grandfathers do not expire nearly as often as their heterosexual partners. An interesting fact that I ask my students to explore using a symbolic interactionist lens. Why use grandmas and not grandpas when forming an excuse? There must be some perceived rhetorical value in the gender of the grandparent.

Announcing Class Pack 2.0 from Nathan Palmer on Vimeo.

I am thrilled to announce today that is launching the Soc101 Class Pack 2.0. This is a complete overhaul of the original Class Pack. Lots of new features, more ready-to-use resources, and for the first time all users can contribute to the Class Pack.

The first Class Pack received nearly a thousand downloads in just 7 months because of you. You were the ones spreading the word about the and the original Class Pack. Because of you I had the pleasure of discussing the Class Pack on the Office Hours podcast and it was featured on the Sociology Lens and Teaching The Social World. Thank you for helping me share the Class Pack; your work inspired me to make the Class Pack 2.0 bigger and better.


  1. Lots more support

    The Class Pack 2.0 now provides users with an entire webpage dedicated to helping you use it. Each piece of the Class Pack 2.0 will be accompanied by a description of how I use it in my classes, the challenges you should be on the look out for, additional activities you can do in class, and, for the first time, videos to help you as you implement the Class Pack 2.0.

  2. Visual Lecture Slides

    Explain complex sociological concepts graphically with the Class Pack 2.0. All the lecture slides in the Class Pack 2.0 feature beautiful images that will help your students understand what you’re talking about in class and they’re reading in their textbook.

  3. Lecture Notes

    Now you can see exactly how I teach my class. For the first time I am providing my lectures notes to all Class Pack 2.0 users. Check out how I do it to get ideas for how you could put a new spin on your classes. Plus it should be easier than ever to see how each piece of the Class Pack 2.0 can be used in your classes.

  4. The “Doing Sociology” Experiential Track

    Give your students the opportunity to experience sociology and do research without creating mountains of paper work for you to grade. This experiential track has your students learn sociology by their own hands and it works in classes of any size. The Doing Sociology experiential learning track was designed to work in a class of 400 students, so try it in your classes today. More info.

  5. Now a 100% more free

    The Class Pack 2.0 is completely free and now you don’t even have to become a member to download it. You can pay me back simply by telling someone else about it. Help me spread the word and we are more than square. Nothing is behind a member wall, so you can Tweet, Facebook, or email absolutely anything!. If you like the Class Pack you can pay me by telling someone about it.

  6. Built on two excellent books

    You May Ask Yourself by Dalton Conley is a tremendous sociology text that shatters students assumptions about the social world and then shows them how sociology can help them pick up the pieces and form a more informed worldview. It is the most reasonably priced text on the market (it’s $55 on Amazon) and it’s backed by some of the best publisher resources available for a Intro book. Go over and check out the [YouTube page] and the [“Study Space” website] for You May Ask Yourself.

  7. Everything is Obvious by Duncan J. Watts eviscerates the common sense approach that armchair sociologists and political pundits use. Watts’s style is so approachable, so straightforward and clear that readers will find themselves laughing and asking themselves, “how on earth did I not see this until now?” This one book will neutralize most of the arguments students have against sociology and get them to jump on board the soc train. You have to read this book!

  8. You can contribute to the Class Pack!

    Have a great resource you think should be included in a Class Pack Module? Send it our way by sing this form and we’ll take a look at it. All user submitted resources will be feature the name of the contributor. Also, anyone can comment on the modules and leave feedback, thoughts, ideas, or suggestions for future Class Packs.

  9. Modules

    The Class Pack 2.0 features 7 modules that combine core concepts of sociology to help your students make connections and see how sociology is more than just a collection of unrelated research and concepts. Each 2-3 week module focuses on a single theme within sociology and provides students with handouts, activities, and more to make learning easier.

  10. Fully customizable

    All the files in the Class Pack 2.0 are editable. It’s easier than ever to take a piece or 2 for your classes or add anything to the resources. Also, all the Windows files were created on a PC, so there should be absolutely no problems with the PowerPoint or Word files.

Follow the Class Pack in Realtime

I will be using all of the modules in my large Soc101 course this fall. After I teach each module in class I’ll add it to the Class Pack and tell you about how it went. You can follow along as I teach my class this semester. Here’s the release schedule for the rest of the posts.

Module Release Dates
M2 – September 26th M5 – November 7th
M3 – October 10th M6 – November 21st
M4 – October 24th M7 – December 12

How do you give 400 intro students the opportunity to “do sociology”1 and not burry yourself under a mountain of grading? This was my nut to crack this summer after I found out I was to teach 400 students in a movie theater this fall2. So I devised a two track system that allows motivated students to choose to participate in experiential learning. I decided early on that if this was going to work I would have to follow two rules:

  1. Don’t create headaches for the teacher
  2. Take less than an hour to grade

The “Two Track” System

Female Track Athlete on Starting Block

I have split up my Intro to Sociology class this fall3 into seven thematic modules. Each module has two online quizzes that students take so they can get immediate feedback and find out early if they are struggling to understand the material. Motivated students who want to learn sociology in a more hands on way can opt to complete a “Doing Sociology Activity”. If students complete the Doing Sociology activity they only need to complete one of the two module quizzes. Students can take the traditional track (2 quizzes) or jump on the experiential track (1 quiz + Doing Sociology activity).

“But who wants to keep track of which track each student is doing?!?”

Agreed. If you had students sign up for a track, that would be a pain to keep track of and violate rule #1. So to side step this problem, students don’t sign up; they simply turn in the Doing Sociology activity on the day its due. If students don’t turn in the Doing Sociology activity then they need only take both module quizzes.

“But who wants to deal with all the late work 400 students could create?”

Indeed. So no late Doing Sociology activities are accepted. I write in my syllabus and tell my students that late Doing Sociology activities will not be accepted for any reason. The Doing Sociology Activities are due 3 days before the module quizzes are. If students miss the deadline or decide at anytime they no longer want to complete the activity all they need do is take the second module quiz. It’s simple: Doing Sociology activities are due on Friday, if you don’t turn one in you have to take both module quizzes by the following Monday. No late work, nothing to keep track of, nada.

It’s simple: Doing Sociology activities are due on Friday, if you don’t turn the Doing Sociology activity in you have to complete both module quizzes by the following Monday.

“But what about the grading?”

First, let’s keep this in scope. This is an optional track which means only the most motivated students who are on top of things will participate. This is designed to have the best students self-select into the track. If more than 10% of my class did any of these activities I’d be floored. Now on to the grading.

Educators frequently fall into the assumption that the only way to assess student learning is by reading their answers to questions. I spent the summer coming up with activities that asked students to make something that I could grade simply by looking at it or quickly scanning it. The first activity has students develop a survey to find out why their peers don’t complete their assigned class reading. I have them use Google Docs to make the project easy to carry out and a snap to grade.

All of the other Doing Sociology activities will ask students to do something that is either visual, tangible, or if it asks them to write something it will be kept under 140 characters. Their completed works will be a synch to grade so even if the entire class does it you’ll be able to grade it quickly.

“But who has time to design these activities?”

I do. I’ll be publishing them with each Class Pack 2.0 module. So check ‘em out. Enjoy and tell your friends.

Why having your students “do sociology” is awesome.

When your students do sociology they learn that it is more than facts and concepts in a text book. They can experience the process of sociology and learn firsthand that it is a methodology and an applied science.

Because the finished work is highly visual and quickly consumed, it will be very easy to pull excellent student work into your class lecture. Students love seeing themselves and even their peers on stage. This will give them the opportunity to do great work and then bask in the spotlight.


1. I know, I know. “Doing Sociology? That’s the buzziest of buzz words in sociology.” I hear you. Don’t worry, I’m not going to start throwing around “teachable moments”, “lecture launchers”, or any other flimsy catch phrases on SociologySource. I couldn’t come up with a better name, so this once, I ask for a cliché affordance. Thank you in advance.

2. To be clear, I am excited about this opportunity. While many folks focus on what a large class can’t do, I’ll be spending this semester doing things that you can ONLY do with a class this large. I want to turn this limitation into an opportunity and then share with you here how I did it. So stay tuned to this semester to hear about my experiences.

3. Check out the Class Pack 2.0 to download all the resources I use in teaching my Intro to Sociology classes.

Environmental sociology is great because it focuses on the biggest social system we have, the natural environment. The natural environment is at the center of culture, the economy, and every other social institution in one form or another. To understand environmental sociology is to understand social systems. The Story of Stuff is the best video I’ve found for explaining how individual actions, social systems, and the natural environment all intertwine. The video is just 21 minutes and available online making it an excellent resource to use in class or as a homework assignment.

If you teach Marx you need to show this video to your students. I’ve spent multiple classes trying to explain how capitalism (a linear system) and the natural environment (a finite resource) can not coexist long term, but it wasn’t until my students watched this video that they truly understood what Marx was trying to say. Furthermore, students seem to grasp how capitalism generated inequality and social injustice both in the U.S. and globally.

I’ve also used this video to teach my students about the difference between what we value and what we spend our money on. I’ll start class by asking students to write down a single item they possess that could never be replaced if it was lost. The item has to be something they would be heartbroken if they lost it forever. In the past students have written things like family photos, something a loved one passed on to them, or something mundane that holds a great deal of sentimental value to them because of who they were with when they first got it. After we watch The Story of Stuff I ask the students to flip the paper over and write down what items they spend most of their discretionary money on. Students write down things like clothes, video games, and smart phones. Then we start a class discussion about why the sentimental things we value are not the things we spend most of our money on.

This video is the gift that keeps on giving. Even if you don’t teach environmental sociology, this video would be a great inclusion for an Intro to Sociology class, a Social Problems class, and any class dealing with global issues or inequality.

Most sociology 101 students don’t actually do sociology. They read about sociological research, but they themselves don’t typically have the opportunity to partake in it. Imagine an intro to physics where students weren’t expected to do physics, an intro to composition class where students didn’t write, or even a spanish 101 course where not a spanish word was uttered. Each would be preposterous. And yet a sociology class where students don’t actually do sociology is par for the course.

The reason for sociological research absence in soc 101 classes is somewhat obvious. It’s hard to get a class of 30 students to independently conduct sociological research and most of us are teaching intro to soc classes with hundreds of students. Also, sociological research is a complex beast and it takes practitioners years to really learn how to do sociology. This summer I’ve made this issue my nut to crack and I think I have found a way to offer your students a chance at doing sociological research in your soc 101 class regardless of how many students you have. I have developed a solution that I will be using this fall when I teach a Soc 101 class that has 400+ students in it.

If you are going to have a class this size do anything you need to have 1) really clear directions, 2) a way to automate most of the tedious repetitive work, and 3) you need to simplify the complex research process down into a few key ideas. To address all three of these I have created an activity that asks my students to conduct survey research on why students don’t do the readings assigned in their classes. The students have to write their own hypothesis statement that identifies an independent and dependent variable and then design and implement a survey that will allow them to test their hypothesis.

Sounds like a whole lot of work right? Well the process is radically simplified by using Google docs. Google docs allows users to create “forms” (a.k.a. surveys) to collect and analyze data. It’s dead simple to create a survey, make it a stand alone webpage, get users to fill it out, and then use Google’s “Analyze data” wizard to get simple descriptive statistics and graphical representations of your data. After students have collected and analyzed their data they can “share” their form/survey with you and you can easily see all their survey, the data they collected, and their statistical analysis.

I’ve created the base directions for this activity which you can download here. I’ve also created a handout for creating surveys on Google Docs that walks students through the process step by step with images and clear directions, download them here. I also wanted my students to learn a little about survey methodology so I created a “Do’s and Don’ts of Good Survey Question Design” handout which you can download here.

Hopefully this assignment will allow our students to experience sociological research without creating mountains of paperwork and unnecessary hassle for us. If you use this or you have your large classes conduct sociological research in another way I’d love to get feedback from you. Send me an email at and tell me what’s worked for you.


My hands shake before I talk about the darkest aspects of social injustice. When I talk about rape and intimate partner violence my throat goes dry. When I teach the topics of prejudice, discrimination, intolerance, and hate my voice becomes somber. For some of my students social injustice is something “out there” floating in the ether, but for others social injustice is something that they deal with everyday; it’s painfully real. Inequality and injustice are not simply academic ideas, but they are lived experiences. We have to teach in a way that is reverent to our students lived experiences, makes room for student anger, but guards against debilitating rage. In the third and final part of my review of Nancy Davis’s article Teaching Inequality: Student Resistance, Paralysis, and Rage1 we will explore how anger can be useful in the classroom, but how rage can be destructive.

Anger is a normal reaction to discussions of injustice and inequality, especially for students who’ve been personally negatively affected by it. When anger grows into rage it blinds students, narrows their perspective on the issue, and students begin to think about inequality in extremely reductionist ways. Davis suggests that when student become enraged and reductionist thinking takes hold,

…everything wrong in the world is attributable to patriarchy or white racism or capitalist hegemony. Men are reduced to a gender with no redeeming qualities and women are regraded as blameless in the maintenance of gender stratified societies. A blindness to the complexities of hierarchical societies and to the multiple forms that stratification takes may result.” p. 236

Enraged students may direct their anger at the nearest student from a privileged group. One male student becomes the figurehead for all that is wrong with patriarchy or a single white student comes to represent racism in it’s entirety. An enraged class is a hostile one that doesn’t allow any divergent thoughts, opinions, or worldviews to be heard. Rage is a righteous anger that assures its holder the way they see the world is accurate beyond a shadow of a doubt. An enraged student has no room for growth or learning.

Making Room for Anger, Guarding Against Rage

Given that anger is normal and a powerful motivator, good pedagogical design doesn’t try to avoid student anger, but rather it tries to use it to encourage learning. In my experience student anger is most commonly expressed by students during a large class discussion. When students want to share their firsthand experiences with injustice and inequality you have to let them be heard; you have to acknowledge that this is their lived experience and how they’ve come to understand it. Using a “two minute paper” to let your students write down their thoughts and feeling about the class discussion allows students to express and work through their feelings. Furthermore this self-reflection can lead to a great deal of learning and self-discovery.

When I’ve had a student become enraged I found that the students are typically unaware that their anger has escalated. If a class discussion gets particularly heated I will always reach out or “check in” with angry students. Typically I will email the student after class so that they have some time to cool off and they are allowed time to think about how they will respond to me. It’s not uncommon for students to reply back, “Thanks for asking, but I’m fine. I love this class and I love talking about _.” In my reply email I will tell the student how much I appreciate their honesty and passion for the topic and ask them to help me make the classroom a place where all voices can be heard. Ideally this turns a potentially volatile student into a student who is supportive to and encouraging of his or her peers.

In my classroom I work to foster an environment that is accepting of all students regardless of where they are at developmentally. Only in the social sciences do students snap on a peer for being uninformed or incorrect. Before a high risk class discussion I tell my students that if in a calculus class the professor asked, “who can tell me how to solve the problem on the board?” And a student rose their hand to incorrectly say, “I, uh, think you take the anti-derivative…?” None of their peers would turn around and say, “WHAT!?! Are you kidding? Didn’t your parents raise you right? Clearly you take the derivative. God some people are ignorant!” No, in a calculus class it’s okay to not know the answer. It’s okay to still be learning. After I tell my students this story I ask them to allow their peers to learn here and to let this room be a space for learning.

Discussing inequality is one of the most challenges aspects of teaching sociology. After reviewing Davis’s article over the last three weeks I hope that you will feel more prepared for the issues surrounding inequality when they arise in your classes.


1. Davis, Nancy J. 1992. “Teaching about Inequality: Student Resistance, Paralysis, and Rage” Teaching Sociology 20(3) Pp. 232-238.

“The world isn’t fair and it’s never going to be so what’s the point of whining about inequality,” so goes the ballad of the paralyzed student. Student paralysis is the second common reaction to discussions of inequality discussed in Nancy Davis’s article Teaching About Inequality Student Resistance, Paralysis, and Rage1. It is easy for a discussion of inequality to turn into a doom and gloom session. Even when you are careful to include examples of positive social change, students can be overwhelmed by the complexity and severity of inequality and throw their hands in the air.

There is also an element of privilege in play here. Privileged students who become aware of their privilege may react by saying, “it has and always will be this way,” because doing so absolves them from feelings of guilt and playing helpless neutralizes any responsibility they may have felt to stand up for equality. Furthermore, playing helpless to inequality allows the privileged to continue enjoying their spoils while helplessness among the unprivileged is a resignation to a life of disadvantage.

Dealing with Paralysis

When students despair they often become fatalistic. They are saying in a sense, “we are screwed. What’s the point of even trying?” In these instances I suggest running with their fatalism. Bounce back with, “you know what you’re right, what is the point? The one thing we always know for sure is that things will always stay the way they are now. We are all victims of our circumstances. Never in history has a disadvantaged group ever fought against the power in society to secure a better life for themselves. We’re doomed, so let’s just call it a day and we’ll pick up on this next time…” Without fail someone in the class will say, “No that’s not right! There are lots of examples of the disadvantaged fighting the powerful.” At this point all you need to do is get out of the way and let the non-fatalistic students teach their fatalistic peers a new way of seeing the world. The beauty of this trick is that you don’t fight against your students despair, but rather you use their logic against itself. Students seem to only want to be fatalistic up to a point.

Structuring Your Class to Avoid Paralysis

Teaching social problems inspires despair. Teaching students social activism inspires them to create social change. All discussions of inequality must be paired with a discussion of what is possible and historical examples of social movements and social change that reduced inequality. When we talk about how powerful political actors use their money and social influence to shape the laws in their favor, I also talk about how a loosely networked group of young people led a successful campaign against big tobacco- who at the time was as entrenched as any political power could be.

In my social problems classes I have them select a social problem at the beginning of the semester and over the course of the semester analyze it’s social causes. The culmination of my social problems class is an assignment that requires my students to carry out some form of social action that creates positive change for the social problem in our community. The students are then free to come up with any solution they can imagine. This forces the students to empower themselves and see that they can create social change. I’ve had students lead letter writing campaigns, create pamphlets on drunk driving and local resources for students dealing with alcoholism, and even had students form a student organization to end human trafficking and slavery. Assignments like these show students what they are capable of and mobilize paralyzed classes.


1. Davis, Nancy J. 1992. “Teaching about Inequality: Student Resistance, Paralysis, and Rage” Teaching Sociology 20(3) Pp. 232-238.

Why is teaching inequality so hard? The Teaching Sociology article Teaching about Inequality: Student Resistance, Paralysis, and Rage by Nancy J. Davis1 identifies three common student reactions to discussion about inequality. This article is tremendous and should be required reading for all sociology teachers. It is also approachable enough that I assign it to my 101 students at the start of the semester to prepare them for the emotions that they may feel over the course of the semester. I’ve talked about the ideas in this article over numerous posts, but the article is so influential that I wanted to focus on it more directly here. This week I will discuss the first (and in my experience most common) reaction, resistance, and next I’ll discuss paralysis and fear.


When physics teachers explain Newton’s laws of motion none of their students say, “Bull. Of course you’d say that. You are biased because of your _.” They just dutifully write it down and try to learn it for the test. After speaking with my physicist friends, they told me that no student has ever stormed out of their classroom in disgust. No student has asked if they could skip a particular chapter because they have a religious objection to it. For some reason sociology instructors aren’t afforded the same luxuries.

Sociology often challenges what students believe is a matter of common sense. When they come to class they are presented empirical arguments that tell them the world is not how they “know for sure” that it is. If physics told it’s students that gravity actually makes things fall upward; it just looks like things are falling to the ground because of your biased worldview then physicists would know a sociologist’s pain.

Students have a vested interest in their worldview. They have used it to make all of their decisions up to now and if they accept what you are teaching they must accept that their worldview is fundamentally flawed and they will have to reexamine everything they’ve been taking for granted. Self-affirming worldviews that inoculate us from feeling any responsibility for the social problems that surround us are SUPER convenient and comfortable. To let them go is frightening. Furthermore, these worldviews tell their holder that they are a good person who does what’s right and that they see the world as it is. If you challenge that you are creating a cognitive dissonance in their head and many students will resist what you have to say.

Resistance in the classroom has many manifestations, but the most common one is the denial of empirical evidence simply because, “that can’t be true”. Resistant students often challenge every idea you present in class, they challenge your credibility, and they try to win other students over to their way of thinking. I love engaging with my students and I don’t want them to dutifully write down what I say as though I am an expert, but if a student and I have gone back and forth in class with the same idea more than 3 times I start to look for the resistance. Often times students are completely unaware of their resistance and they see it as healthy skepticism. However, you have to make clear early in your semester that skepticism is demanding empirical rigor and applying critical thinking. Resistance is denying evidence you believe to be accurate simply because you need it not to be true.

Managing Resistance

When a student seems unwilling to accept or even consider sociological ideas it is often enough simply to ask them, “You seem to be unwilling to accept that this could even be possible. You seem to want this not to be true. Can you tell me why you don’t want this to be true?” This helps students turn their hypercritical energies toward their own thinking. If students are ready to grow they will see their biases, assumptions, and the emotions preventing them from considering that what you are telling them could be true. They almost certainly won’t have an “aha!” moment in class, but you set the stage for them to have it later, when they are ready.

Dealing with resistant students is also a great time for a think-pair-share. Ask your class to write down their answers to these questions, “What would it mean if it (the sociological idea you are teaching) was true? Just for a moment pretend that it is and write down what that would mean. How would you see the world around you differently and what would you do differently?” Give your students 5 minutes to write down their answers, then have them dialogue with their neighbor about it, and finally use their writing to start a class discussion. This is beneficial in two ways. First, if one student is being resistant to an idea you can bet that they have peers in the classroom who agree with them. Second, resistant students often assume that how they see the world is identical to how everyone else in the class does. Allowing their peers to challenge their thinking removes some of the onus from your shoulders and resistant students may be more willing to listen to challenges from their peers.

Lastly, and this is true for paralysis, rage, and resistance, just by discussing these common reactions you give your students the eyes to identify when these situations arise and the words to name them. After reading this article in my class I’ve had students during a classroom discussion spontaneously say to their peer, “it sounds like you are experience resistance. Why do you think that is?” When you give your students the tools to deal with resistance, paralysis, and rage they will self-police one another and everyone learns from it.


1. Davis, Nancy J. 1992. “Teaching about Inequality: Student Resistance, Paralysis, and Rage” Teaching Sociology 20(3) Pp. 232-238.


“Why do you eat what you eat?” I ask my students. After a long pause filled with students giving me bewildered looks someone says, “because it tastes good?” I press them to dig deeper in hopes that they will see a connection to the social world, but almost always they are unable to. My students are staunch believers that what they eat is purely a matter of choice and even an expression of personal freedom. Sure, they say, your family may develop your taste for certain dishes as a child, but that is just your family eating what tastes good to them. Nothing sociological going on here.

Food is a powerful sociological issue because it connects our physical bodies with nature, the economy, and indirectly with every social institution. Food production is public policy, a cornerstone of our economy, and always present in the media. Simply put, food is culture. And yet many students never think twice about it. Thus making it a prime target for teaching sociology.

“Divided We Eat” by Lisa Miller is a Newsweek article that provides students with a great introduction to the issues around food and social class1. The article talks with epidemiologist Adam Drewnowski about the social factors that influence our food choices. As we discuss the article as a class I ask my student to examine food from a symbolic interactionist perspective and my students quickly draw connections between what we eat and how we express our class position.

“In America,” Drewnowski wrote in an e-mail, “food has become the premier marker of social distinctions, that is to say—social class. It used to be clothing and fashion, but no longer, now that ‘luxury’ has become affordable and available to all.”-Miller, Newsweek

After our discussion I pass out an activity I created (download pdf here) that has my students create a food journal for a day and analyze it. Many students were now able to see the connection between what they eat today, what they ate growing up, and their social class position.


1. Thanks to Chad Gesser (@profgesser) for Tweeting this article into my world.