What's a Social Problem

The photo above is on the projector screen when I turn and start class by asking, “What is this a sign for? That is, where would we see this sign and why would it be put up in the first place.” After some bewildered looks students state the obvious, “those signs are along the border.” “The border of Georgia1“I quickly ask. Students laugh softly, “No the Mexican border”. “Why?” I prod them. “Because that’s where all the illegals come from.” “Oh, I see,” I turn and point to the screen in the front of the room and continue, “Who can tell me what ‘social problem’ if any this sign could be associated with. That is, what name would we give to the social problem this sign reflects.” A chorus of voices says, “Illegal Immigration”.

I nod and say, “What if I told you that this social problem you call ‘Illegal Immigration’ is part of a grand story that powerful people in society have been trying to get you to believe? What would you say?” After a healthy pause I follow, “Could anyone in the class tell me the story of ‘Illegal Immigration’?” The silence in the room becomes deafening as my students turn and look around the room with perplexed looks on their faces. “Well then I’d like you to do some research and come back to me next week and tell me if you’ve figured out the story.”

The Research on “Illegal Immigration”

“Illegal Immigration” or undocumented immigration, as I’ll be referring to it, is a hot button issue that has been consistently in the news media for as long as I can remember. However the issue seemed to hit another peak in public attention when Arizona passed a highly punitive state law to enforce federal immigration policy. This was only furthered by the passing of copycat laws in Alabama and Georgia (just to name a few). Given all the media attention there is a lot of great resources out there for teaching the controversies around this social problem.

My students love it when I can pair academic sources with popular media. They really love it when we use multiple mediums. I’ve created an “immigration media collection” that includes the following. The collection is designed to present conflicting arguments from the opponents of and supporters of undocumented immigrants.

  • “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant” by Jose Antonio Vargas (Story featured in The New York Times Magazine).
  • An audio podcast of a NPR Fresh Air Interview with Vargas & Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies. Vargas goes into further detail in his half of the podcast and Krikorian talks about why he feels Vargas should be deported.
  • A CBS Evening News report on how Georgia farmers are struggling to farm without undocumented immigrants.
  • An episode of 30 Days where a Minute Man lives with an undocumented family. See below:

30 Days: Immigration from MacQuarrie-Byrne Films on Vimeo.

I pair all of these popular media with the chapter on immigration from our course textbook and it creates a powerful pedagogical tool. Students seemed to be really thinking about the issues deeply. Many students said it was only after they watched the video and read Vargas’s story that they wanted to know more about the facts and sociological research surrounding undocumented immigration. So, at least in this case, popular media created a hunger for scholarly research.

The Stories We Tell About Undocumented Immigration

After spending a week on undocumented immigration my students were primed to break down the narrative behind the social problem. When I asked, “What is the story or stories well tell about ‘illegal immigration’ in the United States?” My students quickly pointed to the border and that image I’d used to start our entire discussion. “The border isn’t the only problem.” I asked them to tell me more. “Around half of immigrants over stay their visas, so we could build a wall to the heavens and it wouldn’t end the problem of undocumented immigration.” I was impressed.

“What else,” I asked. There was a long pause before someone said, “The story we tell is only half the story.” With a prompt from me the student continued, “We only talk about the undocumented immigrants and we rarely if ever talk about the corporations that employ them.” “Bingo,” I replied. For the rest of the class we talked about conflict theory’s argument that powerful social actors use their influence to define social problems as being the responsibility or fault of the least powerful in society. “It’s all in the name,” one of my students said. “‘illegal immigration’ says it all. The problem is the ‘illegals’ not the employers who bring them here.” “Right,” I began, “we call it ‘illegal immigration’ and not ‘non-citizen exploitation’. Both names are apt, but as a society we’ve been convinced to focus on the former.”

While my students were feeling particularly anti-corporation I asked them if they play a role in undocumented immigration. Multiple heads shook left to right and someone mustered a, “No.” “What sectors of our economy do undocumented immigrants work in? That is, what jobs do they tend to have?” Quickly a list forms, “Farming, meat packing, factory work, landscaping, and housework,” were shouted out. Then I asked, “If undocumented laborers are paid an unfair wage for harvesting food or manufacturing products, does this not make them cheaper?” The obvious answer came easily. “Do you think that any of you have purchased any of these products made cheaper by undocumented immigration?” No one said a word, but heads slowly nodded. “So in that case all of you have directly benefited from undocumented immigration. You’ve had more money in your pocket because someone didn’t get paid what they should have, right?” The answer didn’t come as easy this time.

What I want my students to learn is that the story we tell about undocumented immigration is a simple one that blames only one group; the group with the least social power. In reality undocumented immigration is terribly complex and each of us in the United States has been either a victim or benefactor of harsh state and federal immigration policies. Once students accept that the world is far more complex than we are told it is on the news we can start to develop their sociological imagination.


1. I teach in Georgia.

“No one wants to date YOU!” I tell my students. “You can’t get anybody looking like you look, sounding like you sound, or acting like you act. Oh no.” Students brows scrunch up with a healthy mix of confusion and offense. I take a long pause and watch my students writhe in their seats before I say, “If you act like you on a first date, you can bet it will be your last date. You have to send your representative to a first date. Your representative is the ideal version of you.” With this we start a conversation about Goffman’s Presentation of Self and the ideal. 1

Dating is ripe for sociological analysis because it is full of unspoken norms, tension, and false presentations of self. It is easy to see the social construction of reality on a date because we are expected to construct a reality about who we are, about the world around us, and we are expected to construct a romantic experience for our partner. Dates, especially first dates, are a break from normality, so it is easy to see the familiar as strange- because first dates are strange. After I let my students know that I think they are love worthy, date-able people, I ask them to break up into small groups and answer the following questions.

When on a First Date:

  1. What would you not tell your date about yourself or what would you not bring up in conversation?

  2. What would you emphasize about yourself in conversations?

  3. How might you behave on a first date that is different from how you behave normally?

  4. How would you dress or present yourself physically?

After 10 to 15 minutes in small groups I ask the class to come back together. We review Goffman’s Presentation of Self and what he had to say about the ideal. I then ask the student to share their answers My goal here is to help them see Goffman in their responses. Students report that they dress nicely, use their manners, don’t talk about ex-partners or their problems, and never under any circumstances get angry unless they want to end the date immediately. I suggest to students that dates are an easy way to see how staging, costuming, and dialogue unfold like a well rehearsed play. Students universally agree. The ideal self (what I called our representative) goes on a date with another representative and they both work to create an ideal date. The artificiality of a first date makes it easy to see the effort put into constructing reality, but the goal of this exercise is to get students to see similar efforts to construct reality not just on dates, but nearly everywhere in society.

I wrap up the discussion by suggesting that there is a period in any romantic relationship where you actually haven’t fully met your partner. I joke with my class, “if you haven’t got into an argument with your partner, then you haven’t really met them yet.” Students heads nod and invariably a student or two tells a story of one of their friends who is getting married after only dating their partner for a short time. At least anecdotally, this seems to be a common occurrence for 20 somethings. This last semester one of my students rephrased my words-of-caution for young lovers. He said, “If you haven’t heard your partner fart then you shouldn’t marry them, because you haven’t met them yet.”


1. As my hip readers will already know, I stole the “no one wants to date you” bit from Chris Rock’s Bigger & Blacker.

Have you ever wondered why students seem armed to the teeth with anecdotal evidence to counter almost everything sociology has to teach them? Why do they seem so resistant to accepting the lessons of sociology. I’m sure you’ve had a student who, despite mountains of empirical evidence and your best attempts to explain it to them, refuses to acknowledge that their view of the world is inaccurate. What’s up with that? Well, the answer is very complex, but the confirmation bias (and the fundamental attribution error discussed last week) can help us understand our students better and be more empathetic teachers.

The confirmation bias, simply defined, is the bias toward accepting information that confirms our worldview without critique while at the same time being overly critical of information that counters are preconceived notions of the world. This explains how students are drawn to and remember information or experiences that confirm their views. It also explains why some students are harshly critical or even prone to dismissing out of hand any evidence that counters their view of the world. The confirmation bias is behind stereotypes, discrimination, and the construction of our worldview*. There is actually new research that suggests that non-confirming evidence can actually “backfire” and strengthen a person’s commitment to their misconceptions (learn more about this by listening to this NPR Talk of the Nation episode)

To get the most bang for your buck, you should talk about the confirmation bias as early in your class as possible. Put a name on it and you are half way to overcoming it. After the bias has a name you can pull it out when a student seems to be suffering from it. I often say in my classes, “You seem unwilling to consider that this evidence is accurate. What would it mean if it was? Just for a moment pretend that it is accurate, how would that change the way you see things?”

I use Fox News and MSNBC as examples of the confirmation bias. These two news agencies channels are built on the confirmation bias. Most people who tune in to these channels find that it is an opportunity to learn why the way they see the world is right and to laugh at the stupid people on the other side of the argument. Does Fox News do a better job of eviscerating the liberal point of view? Is MSNBC less biased? All of these questions are beside the point, so please don’t send emails 🙂 The point is that these channels are self-affirming and that is their business strategy. I also use this as an opportunity to discuss how the split screen screaming talking heads is a poor model for social discourse and that our classroom discourse will not devolve into that.

So what? After you explain the confirmation bias to students, they may think this to themselves. So what that I am more critical of some info than I am of others. Some students may see a sociological discussion of the confirmation bias as being a “bleeding heart liberal” telling them they need to be considerate of others. In my experiences students with the most social privileges are the most likely to experience the self-inoculating logic. I find the best way to get students to buy in and to care about confirmation bias is to give them “real world” examples of its practical value. I tell them that when Napster and music file sharing blew up record executives were unwilling to see that the world wasn’t going to be buying music on plastic discs for much longer. They were unwilling to see the world as it was, to acknowledge that it had changed, and because they clung to their worldview they have seen a dramatic reduction in the profits and their need to exist. Having the courage to see the world as it is, to listen to voices that challenge us, to be willing to change your mind as new evidence emerges, is the key to be a successful person in any field, discipline or career.

Teaching our students how to locate empirical evidence and use it to refine their worldview is an essential skill regardless of their major. Sell them on this and they will buy into your class.

Teaching the confirmation bias can help your students learn sociology, but it can also help you be an empathetic teacher. It is too easy to say that students “simply don’t want to learn” or to blame their resistance on who they are (anyone see the fundamental attribution error at work here?). I believe that students, by in large, really want to learn. After we accept the confirmation bias is affecting our students, it is easier to empathize with their position and be patient.

*Yes, you suffer from it too and if you acknowledge and own this in front of your students they will be more likely to believe you and accept the gravity of this bias.

The fundamental attribution error is so central to learning sociology that it astonishes me that I’ve never seen it covered in a Soc 101 text*. The fundamental attribution error is the idea that each of us as an individual is biased toward viewing our behaviors within the context of our circumstances. However, when we view the behaviors of others we attribute their behaviors to who they are as a person or to their character. The classic example is speeding.

To begin a class discussion on the fundamental attribution error I ask my students to think about the last time they broke the speed limit. Not like 5 miles an hour over, but like really really broke the speed limit. After a moment I ask, “So why were you speeding?” Students describe how they typically don’t recklessly speed unless there is some dire need to get somewhere fast. Students talk about being fired if they are late to work one more time, sleeping through an alarm and being late to a final or midterm, or speeding to catch a flight. Many times students start their explanations by saying, “I typically don’t speed, but…” When asked why they speed students provide a litany of circumstantial reasons for their “unusual” behavior.

I then ask students to think about the last time they were driving and someone blew by them or was weaving through traffic recklessly. After they collect this memory, I ask them how they feel about the speeding driver. “I typically yell, ‘you ___ hole!'” one of my students said this semester. Students go on to describe how they feel the reckless driver is a danger to society and they need to be stopped. Student describe speeders as fundamentally different people from them. They have a character flaw that makes them speed. There is almost always no discussion of how the other speeders may be experiencing circumstances similar to the times that students recalled speeding. Basically what pans out every time I have this discussion is that, students speed because of unique circumstances, but others speed because of who they are.

We can see the fundamental attribution error all over the place in sociology. It’s present in almost every stereotype. We see it in the criminal justice system. But where I experience the fundamental attribution error the most is in discussions of inequality. Students can go on and on about how they’re loved ones work extremely hard and still can’t get themselves out of poverty, but they also go on and on about how they know so many poor people who, unlike their loved ones, are lazy and unwilling to even try to live independent of government aid. I frequently hear a statement like this, “It makes me so mad to see all these people who live off of welfare whining about being broke when they aren’t even looking for work or trying to be independent. When my family was on welfare we used it because we had to and as soon as we could get off of it we did.” Statements like this show how students place their families use of welfare within the context of their circumstances, but they refuse to extend the same to other families on welfare. The character of these other families are fundamentally different from theirs. When we talk about empirical research that shows that the majority of welfare recipients only receive aid for a short period of time and then leave the programs as soon as they can, students seem perplexed. They tell me stories of people they saw picking up welfare checks in Cadelac Escalades. They tell me that despite my empirical evidence to the contrary, most people “abuse welfare” and their family was one of the rare exceptions. Knowing that this discussion is almost certainly coming, I start the semester with a discussion of the fundamental attribution error and I’ve found that students are increasingly willing to accept the empirical evidence.

Discussions of authority and obedience are another area ripe for the fundamental attribution error. In my class we watch a clip about the Stanford Prison experiment, read about Millgram’s electrocution experiments, and the like. Students learn about all these examples of obedience with disbelief. Students almost always say something like, “Well all this research shows is there are some gullible and obedient people out there.” Here again is the fundamental attribution error. My students believe that these “obedient people” are fundamentally different than they are. A quick way to neutralize this self-serving logic is to ask the class, “how many of you think this is true? Show of hands who thinks that ‘people are gullible and obedient’?” Almost every hand in the class goes up. “Okay, now how many of you think you are gullible and obedient?” Not a single hand goes up. “Oh, so this is something ‘people do’ but none of you do it. Huh, that’s strange.” This is a great launching point for a discussion of the fundamental attribution error.

*The fundamental attribution error comes from social psychology (as far as I know). So it kinda makes sense that it’s not featured in a 101 text.

If there is one thing The Daily Show does better than anyone, it’s expose hypocrisy. This is helpful when teaching conflict theory. One of the central tenants of conflict theory (and hegemony more directly) is that those in power use their influence to cast their behaviors in the best light possible. These powerful actors similarly use the media to cast the least powerful in society in the worst possible light. (Note: I spoke about this last year, read that post here)

J. Stewart and the Daily Show gang’s coverage of the Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s attempt to abolish the teachers union’s ability to collectively bargain has been particularly on point. Stewart effectively juxtaposes the cable news media’s presentation of the “lazy, fat cat, undeserving teachers” making $50k a year to the “job creating Wall Street executive” making $250+ who deserve a continuation of the Bush tax break. Even more damming is the video of the same people saying one thing for the rich and the exact opposite for teachers. While Stewart’s brashness is not conducive to everyone’s teaching style, I find my students have a better understanding of conflict theory/hegemony after watching clips like this.

Here’s a bonus clip that shows how the media rejoice when big banks like J.P. Morgan and Goldman Sacs rake in the dough because the Fed is literally giving them the money to sell to the US government to pay back the TARP money we gave them. While students may need some help following this cycle, they are appalled to learn how the big banks receive this government handout.

<!– "I want you to stand perfectly still & expressionless for 15 minutes outside the union," that is what I told my 262 soc101 students yesterday as I surprised them with an activity called "Doing Nothing". The Doing Nothing activity, originally designed by Karen Bettez Halnon, is a modification on the classic break-a-norm activity.
I use this activity to teach norms, deviance, and Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Students feel first hand the anxiety of norm violations. They experience being stigmatized and being labeled by others as crazy, creepy, or even scary. Instead of norms, deviance, and Goffman being abstract sociological concepts they become real experiences.
Advantages to Doing Nothing as a Class:
Break a norm in public. That is arguably the oldest sociology activity in the book. Problem is, most students don’t actually do it; opting instead to write the paper based on what they imagine the experience would be like. When this happens your break-a-norm activity turns into a short fiction assignment. Doing Nothing as an entire class allows you to verify students had the experience.
Another benefit of Doing Nothing as a class is you can provide a safe and secure environment for your students.

Want to teach your students about norms, deviance, and the social construction of reality in a way that they’ll never forget? Try Doing Nothing, literally. Have your students silently stand in a public place for 15 minutes with absolutely no expression on their face. If anyone approaches them they are to reply to any and all questions by saying, “I am doing nothing.”

Students laugh when they hear the directions. Anxiety washes over them as they take their places. They struggle to contain nervous laughter and their fight or flight instinct that is screaming RUN in their head. All of a sudden those abstract concepts, deviance, norms, stigma, all become uncomfortably real. Students learn with their own two eyes how people react to non-conformers- to deviants. This is lived sociology.

Doing Nothing is not my own idea. Karen Bettez Halnon (2001) in Teaching Sociology outlined how she had her students individually do nothing in a public place for 30, of what I assume must have been excruciating, minutes. All I’ve done here is tweak her idea and amplify it to an extreme.

I figured if I have a class of 262 students why not put it to use. One person doing nothing is strange, but 262 students doing nothing is a sight to behold. Also, doing the activity as a class allowed me to verify* it was carried out and that students safety** was maintained.

Public Sociology:
Despite sociology being inherently social, it is surprising how rarely we use the public in the instruction of sociological concepts. I am most proud of how interactive this learning experience was. Students learned by doing (and at a grand scale).

Now, with our YouTube video, the students and I are trying to teach as many people as possible the sociological lessons we learned yesterday. My hope is that my students will see how their actions started a small social movement and created change and learning in others. I plan on using this as an example of how they can change the world around them. If you teach for social justice, if you hope to inspire your students to do more than just memorize some facts for a test, then we have to find ways to role model, or better yet provide a platform for, creating social change in our communities.

As a final note, it would mean a lot to me if you would take the time to watch the video above and pass it along to someone you think would enjoy it. The more people who watch the clip the more my students will feel capable and empowered to create social change. I have loved giving away as much as I possibly could over the last year and now I am asking for one small favor in return. Five minutes of your life to watch the clip, send it to someone else, Tweet it, post it on Facebook, etc.

Thank you,

Event Logistics:
If you’re going to do anything with 262 people you’re going to need help and a lot of planning ahead. I recruited 11 student volunteers to help me with maintaining safety and crowd control. I created a handout to communicate to the volunteers what their responsibilities were (download it here).

I also created a set of concise and explicit lecture slides that visually explained the directions for the activity (see below | Download them here). Note that students were required to participate, but not to be video recorded. Students had the option to do the activity in another location away from cameras, but none of my 262 students chose not to participate (which was a delightful surprise). Students who were going to be recorded had to sign an image release and consent form.

*Break a norm in public. That is arguably the oldest sociology activity in the book. Problem is, most students don’t actually do it; opting instead to write the paper based on what they imagine the experience would be like. When this happens your break-a-norm activity turns into a short fiction assignment. Doing Nothing as an entire class allows you to verify students had the experience.

**As Bettez Halnon mentions in her Teaching Sociology article, students are left vulnerable in a public place if you ask them to do this activity alone. Every time I have done this activity I have found that passersby will try to coax a response out of students by touching them in some way. Typically this is a simple poking on the nose or lifting up an arm and then letting it fall, but I’ve seen students attempt to pull on students coats and backpacks. I absolutely would not do this activity without supervising the event myself. Along these same lines, I also instruct my students that if at any moment they feel unsafe in anyway they are to discontinue the activity and return to the classroom.

Bettez Halnon, Karen. 2001. “The Sociology of Doing Nothing: A Model “Adopt a Stigma in a Public Place” Exercise.” Teaching Sociology 29(4) Pp:423-38.

“Did you hear that Georgia is going to pass a version of the Arizona immigration law? That totally sucks!” a student says to me. I pause for a moment and respond, “I have heard that and I called Georgia and told it to go to its room without supper and think about what it’s done.” The student cocks their head to the side with a bewildered look on their face.

I hear a version of this statement almost monthly. Sometimes it’s a national law, sometimes its a local law, sometimes it’s even a campus policy that students are up in arms about.

I teach in Georgia. I and most of my students are citizens of Georgia, the US, and all of us are members of Georgia Southern University (GSU). So it strikes me as odd that students speak of Georgia, the United States, or GSU as though it is something outside themselves- something they are not a part of.

What’s really going on here is reification. The students speak of Georgia as though it is an entity in and of itself, but it’s not. It’s made up of people. I am Georgia. They are Georgia. This is painfully obvious when we talk about our university. GSU is nothing more than the students, faculty, staff, and administration (all of whom were human beings, last I checked).

Reification, simply defined, is mistaking something composed of or created by humans as being an entity unto itself. We do this all the time when we talk about “the economy” or “the government” or most of all “the system”. “The system” doesn’t exist on its own, “the system” regardless of what system we are talking about is comprised of humans who are typically moving a mouse, pushing buttons on a keyboard, and squinting at a monitor.

Am I just splitting hairs here? No, because we cannot change anything unless we know where to direct our energies. When we talk about “the economy” we ignore that people (policy makers, business leaders, etc) make the decisions that direct the economy and affect each of our lives. If we believe that “the economy” is a big hairy monster that needs to be coaxed back into giving us jobs (see below), we make ourselves powerless. People can be changed, behaviors can be modified, but mythical creatures cannot.

Img: Shekhar Gurera

We can empower students by bringing social systems into a human perspective. To teach reification I compel my students to see that, “WE are Georgia. WE are the United States. WE, especially, are GSU. If you don’t like something, let’s work together to make social change.”

I use the slide above (download it here) as a sort of ice breaker for reification. To really teach reification you would need to pair this ice breaker with a lengthy discussion about how social policy is formed and enforced.  I also typically pair this reification ice breaker with a discussion of hegemony (read about that here).

If you have taught even a single class, then you know how hard it can be to stay enthusiastic when some/most of your student’s faces look like they are bored to death by what you’re saying. First off let’s clear the air, this happens to every teacher in every class at some point or another. This is not a sign that you are a bad, boring, or ineffective teacher. It is also not a sign that your students are somehow rude or unmotivated. A semester/quarter long class is an exercise in endurance for both teachers and students. Given the inevitability of these moments I suggest that you use them as an opportunity to teach your class something about Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.

Yawns, Heavy Sighs, and Screwed Up Faces

Before class starts on the day that I want to teach Goffman I pick 3-5 students who I’ve developed a relationship with and I ask each one of them to come sit up at the front of the class with their chairs turned so they face the rest of the students. I ask each of these students to silently take notes about their experiences viewing the class from this angle. I ask them to write down what people’s facial expressions look like, what they can see the students doing with their hands, and to write down anything they see that would make them think that a student is not really interested in the class or paying attention.

When class starts someone typically asks me why some of the students are sitting at the front. I come up with some fib on the spot, typically about norm violations. For the rest of the class I make no mention of the students at the front of the room or even look in their direction. I want the class to forget that they are there and act normally.

When we’re almost near the end of our discussion of Goffman I ask the class to work on a two minute paper or answer some questions in small groups. Then I quickly discuss with my observers what they saw and help them frame their observations in the language of Goffman. When I tell the class that the panel of students at the front have been taking notes about their facial expressions and body language they typically break up in laughter. Without fail the observers have found the experience eye opening and they say things like, “People in this class act like they are invisible” or “No one in here is good at hiding their phones while they text.” When I ask the panel if, based on the facial expressions and body language of the students, they think the class was interested in todays discussion of Goffman the panel almost always says, “no” or, “hell no”. The rest of the class is shocked to hear that their perceptions of their facial expressions and body language were so far from the perception of the observing students.

What I love about this activity is that I am not the one who has to tell the students how poorly they present themselves. If I were to simply tell them what I see everyday it would sound like nagging or maybe even offensive, but when they hear it from their peers they take the feedback with no argument. I also love this activity because it is like a tool kit that you can use later in the semester. If you look out onto your class and see a ocean of yawns, heavy sighs, and screwed up faces you can say, “Do you guys remember that Goffman activity we did because looking out at you all today it seems you may have forgotten the lessons learned.” Students immediately perk up or put away their cell phones.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
That’s Tariffic
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor Tea Party

One of the central tenets of Conflict Theory is that those in power are able to control or manipulate the media and the public at large so that they can escape criticism. Subsequently those in power can do or say things that if a less powerful person exhibted the same behavior they would be ridiculed or possibly be committing a crime (As you can see there is some overlap with Labeling Theory here as well).

To illustrate this I ask my students what the difference is between a social policy or program that affects the poor versus a similar program/policy that affects the rich. So for example, many students are critical of “government handouts” in the form of welfare, but the same students are off put when I ask if welfare is akin to the tax write offs home owners receive. Aren’t these both government handouts? Some students will say that homeownership stimulates the economy, but I counter that food stamps, WIC, and many other welfare programs stimulate the economies of the communities where these monies are spent.

This last tax season Jon Stewart demonstrated this tenant of conflict theory by lampooning the network coverage of the finding that 47% of American households didn’t pay anything in taxes or even made a profit. Many of those who were in an uproar over this finding suggested that something was wrong with our tax system or, as Glenn Beck suggested, they should be forced to serve in the military if they were not going to contribute in some other way. None of the critics suggested that growing economic inequality was the cause, but rather blamed the poor for taking advantage of the system.

At the same time this story was running, only one US network covered the fact that Exxon Mobile, who made $35 billion in profits, didn’t pay a cent in taxes to the US government. To compound this, Exxon Mobile did pay $15 billion in taxes to other nations around the world. Instead of being critical of their tax evasion, US news networks celebrated Exxon’s profits.

I have shown this video in my classes and Stewart explains this aspect of Conflict theory better than I ever could in only 6 minutes. My students loved this video and were laughing out loud, but I do have to caution you that at one moment ( 3:26 into the video) Stewarts comedy is a tad inappropriate. I always ask my students if they are okay with a little blue humor before I show this clip.


This is a presentation I do that helps students understand how two groups of people could be labeled differently for doing the exact same behavior in the exact same place at the exact same time.  I use this is both my Race & Nationality course and my Intro to Soc courses.

I usually begin by asking students to think of labels that can positively or negatively affect someone.  I follow that up by asking, “how does someone get a label like this? Can they give it to themselves?”  This helps draw the social dynamics of labeling theory into the light.

Download The Presentation Here

Download The Teacher Support Version Here