Environmental Soc

“I thought this class was going to be about the environment, but we keep talking about illegal immigrant workers.” is a statement one of my students years ago made in my environmental sociology class. The social inequality we see in a society is reflected in and reproduced by the the maltreatment of the environment. This is the foundational idea I want my students in environmental sociology to learn. However, drawing the connection between the two can at times seem counter intuitive to students.

I love the film Food, Inc. because it addresses how intertwined our social realities are to our environmental realities. The video pairs the exploitation of low level workers in the food industry with the tragic conditions animals are raised and slaughtered in. At one point in the film someone says that corporate food producers treat workers exactly like the treat their animals. Both will be gone soon, so it just easier to design the system to acquire them quickly, use them up, and discard them.

We see in the film how large food corporations use their power to shape the government regulations that are supposed to oversee their industry and protect consumers. Students learn that in some states legislation has been proposed that would make it a felony to snap a photo of a industrial food operation and how in all states its a crime to speak out against food producers under the “veggie-libel laws”. This film is perfect for any class that discusses Mills’s The Power Elite or anything from Marx.

While the film paints a grave picture of our current food situation in America, it’s not doom & gloom. Throughout the film I found myself thinking, “why are we producing food like this? This makes no sense.” I’ve yet to have a class where students were perplexed by the rampant irrationality of rationality on display in the entire industrial food production system. The film closes with actions that people can take and tells the viewer, “You have a vote on this system three times each day”. More than any issue I present in my environmental sociology class my students really seem motivated and confident they can affect a change. In particular students agreed with the CEO of Stonyfield Farm Organics who says in the film, consumers have far more sway on what grocers sell than they may perceive.

I created a viewing guide for my students to fill out as they watch the film (download it here) and a short writing assignment that focuses on the connection between the social and natural worlds (grab it here). Food, Inc is available on Netflix streaming for free and should mandatory viewing for all sociologists.

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.


“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.