This year I taught Introduction to Sociology. In order to discuss the power of discourse in society, I showed by students Chimamanda Adichie’s 2009 TED Talk called “The Danger of a Single Story“. My students were enamored. We had a fascinating and engaging discussion about single stories and the ways in which they affected my students’ lives and their engagement with the world around them. As a result of this phenomenal class, I developed the following assignment that I thought other sociologists would like to adapt to fit their courses.

Assignment Description and Instructions:

Chimamanda Adichie passionately and clearly teaches us the “danger of a single story” in her 2009 TED Talk. (You can find it here: Adichie demonstrates the ways in which our society is a collection of social stories or narratives, the most pervasive and controlling of which are/were manufactured by people with social power (the power elite).

Single stories can include stereotypes, ideologies and, what sociologists call, cultural hegemony. Stereotypes are overly simplistic generalizations about a subgroup of peoples. Those that “stick” often are constructed by people with power and used to limit opportunities for the stereotypes’ subjects. Ideologies are sets of ideas that shape how people make sense of the world around them. Depending on the social power of those holding and employing these ideologies, they can have significant impact on social structures and the life chances of others. Cultural hegemony is a system beliefs, norms, and values, shaped by the ruling-class, that justifies the status-quo as natural or normal, and thus makes it invisible. These discourses shape what is knowable and sayable in any given context.

For your papers, you will select a societal single story and analyze it. The first paper will examine a stereotype, the second an ideology, and the third a hegemonic narrative. For each, you will explore the story, its origins, its functions, and its impact on society. You will then examine the alternative stories: those told by the victims of the single story and/or those who are able to see through the discursive fog. Finally, you will propose ways to change the story both in your daily life and on a broader scale. As you move through these projects, also reflect on the ways in which stereotypes, ideologies, and hegemonic narratives are intertwined/not clearly separated.

Note: not all stereotypes and ideologies are examples of single stories. Those that are systemically affect the life chances of marginalized people in society and are not abutted by substantial alternative narratives. The stereotype or ideology you select for this paper must also be an example of a single story.

Although the story you choose is up to you, there are specific requirements for your analysis. In using a sociological lens to analyze the story you should engage with both data and social theories. Use your sociological imagination.

  • The Story: Explain the single story you chose. To do this, outline its narrative and logic. What is the story? What social inequality or issue does it attempt to explain?
  • Start the Story Earlier: Analyze where the story originated. Who created the story? What is the function/dysfunction of the story? What happens if you start the story here/earlier? How does the narrative shift?
  • Explore its Impact on Identity, Perceptions of Others, Social Relations, and Social Institutions: How does the story affect people’s sense of self? How does it affect the way people understand each other? How does the story affect contemporary social relations? How does it contribute to the perpetuation of inequality in society? How has it become institutionalized?
  • Listen to Alternative Stories: What is the story told by the subjects of the story? How does the story shift if you listen to these testimonies? What happens to the story if you follow the perspective of those most oppressed by it/and or those able to see through the narrative?
  • Change the Story: How can the story be changed? What can you do in your daily life to contribute to shifting the narrative? What can be done on a broader scale?

Non-Service Learning Version

  • Course Materials: Your paper should incorporate course materials to explore these concepts or ideas. This can include information from class discussion, films shown in class, and class readings. Use at least three sources from the course.
  • Data and Evidence: You need to draw on specific examples in order to show the existence, origins, and impact of these stories. To do this you will need to use at least three outside sources. These sources must be academic in nature. If you cannot find it on Google Scholar or in academic journals, you should run the source by me.
  • Include a reference page at the end of the paper that includes materials cited both from the course and your additional research.

Service Learning Version

  • Course Materials: Your paper should incorporate course materials to explore these concepts or ideas. This can include information from class discussion, films shown in class, and class readings. Try to use at least three sources from class discussion.
  • Data and Evidence: Rather than doing library research, your data will come from your service-learning site. It will involve your ability to think critically about what you see and to open your ears, mind, and heart to alternative possibilities. You will use stories from your experiences in order to answer the questions posed by this project. It may be the case that you have a hard time finding three stories that relate to your site. If this challenge (or any challenge) arises, talk to me.

Learning Outcomes

The primary goal of this activity is to foster critical thinking skills. It enables students to think reflectively about social stories, whether they be stereotypes, ideologies, or hegemonic narratives, and to deconstruct them. Students will develop skills they can use throughout their lives to see through historical forces and constructed discourse: including the essential ability to listen to subaltern voices. Finally, this assignment empowers students to think of constructive ways to challenge “single stories” in their social networks and broader communities.

Note: Thought not a requirement, you may want to consider selecting related stereotypes, ideologies, and hegemonic narratives so that you can also examine how they are related and how power flows between them.

Evaluation Criteria (based on presence and quality of required elements)

  • Paper includes a strong organizing theme (the story) presented in a clear thesis.
  • Thesis/theme is developed and supported throughout the paper.
  • Paper sincerely and analytically discusses the nature of the story.
  • Paper sincerely and analytically discusses the origins and intentions/functions of the story.
  • Paper sincerely and analytically discusses the impact of the story on peoples’ identity, understandings of each other, and broader social relations (including institutions).
  • Paper sincerely and analytically discusses the alternative stories told by those marginalized and/or those able to see through the fog of hegemony.
  • Paper sincerely and analytically discusses possibilities for change in one’s life, community, and broader society.
  • Paper is well written, reflective, and interesting.
  • Paper includes required citations

Every semester I use an activity from the journal Teaching Sociology to teach about class inequality.  The article describing the activity can be found here.  The authors, Catherine L. Coghlan and Denise W. Huggin have designed a game that really helps students understand the difficulty of class mobility.

From their abstract:

Social stratification may be one of the most difficult topics covered in sociology classes. This article describes an interactive learning exercise, using a modified version of the game Monopoly, intended to stress the structural nature of social inequality and to stimulate student reflection and class discussion on social stratification in the United States. The primary focus of this exercise is to help students experience different levels of social stratification and to challenge the idea that individual talents or aspirations are enough to overcome structural barriers to upward class mobility. Student reactions to the experience suggest that it is an effective tool for demonstrating the structural nature of social inequality in the United States and for stimulating discussion on social inequality and related topics. This exercise has worked well in introductory sociology, social problems, and social inequality classes.

I don’t want to say too much about the activity (don’t want to risk copyright laws or plagiarism) so, instead, I’ll leave you to read the article on your own.  What you should know, however, is that in all of my evaluations my students (Introduction to Sociology and Social Problems) cite this as one of the most useful activities they have ever had in a college classroom.

Every semester in my Introduction to Sociology courses, I offer students the option of completing the standard course assignments (midterm exam, final exam, memoir paper, reading quizzes) or undertaking a more comprehensive challenge: envisioning an alternative to current economic systems.  This assignment encourages students to challenge hegemonic ideas of the economy to develop a new theory of how to run a functional society.  Here is the assignment in more detail:

Envisioning Alternatives to Capitalism, Socialism and Capitalism

The goal with this assignment is for students to envision an alternative economic system that would benefit all human beings, as well as the planet more broadly.

It is required that students engage with sociology through the process of this activity.  They must set up an awareness of the current economic systems (capitalism, socialism, communism), their weaknesses and strengths, using course material.  In the process of developing an alternative model the other social problems discussed in class (gender inequality, racial inequality, crime, health inequality, educational inequality, food and the environment, etc) must also be considered.  It is expected that course readings be used (and cited) in this project.

The product can take many forms, not limited to the following suggestions: essay, charts, presentation, artwork, video, or a combination thereof.  However, in order to get credit as a replacement for other coursework, it must be of high quality.

It is my vision that there will be some “back and forth” between student and professor over the course of the semester.  Perhaps the student would present ideas in some form, send it for professor feedback, and add more material as the course continues.

To recap, the student must:

1) Engage with course material about the current economic systems of:

–       Capitalism
–       Socialism
–       Communism

2) Present the strengths and weaknesses of the current models, as explained in the class readings.  This would include issues related to:

–       Gender Inequality
–       Racial Inequality
–       Crime and Punishment
–       Health Inequality
–       Educational Inequality
–       Food and the Environment

3) Develop a well thought out alternative that would provide solutions to the aforementioned problems.

The final draft will be due on the final exam date, but students should present different elements of the project over the course of the semester.

This semester I have my first student taking the challenge.  I’ll keep you posted on how the project goes!

This is an assignment my mentor and sociology professor from Luther College, Char Kunkel, uses in her class.  Her description of the activity is below.  Following that I have assembled a little bit of feedback from her students about the activity.  I look forward to using it in my classes in the future!


Norms are rules or standards of behavior shared by most members of a society or subgroup.  They are statements about how you ought to, or should, behave.  When appropriate behavior is defined differently for women and men, the expectations specific to each are called gender norms.  One way to find out what the norms are in any given situation is to violate them–i.e., break the rules.

The purpose of this assignment is to determine the boundaries of some contemporary gender norms and to discover and challenge your own boundaries around gender.  A secondary purpose is to give you the subjective experience of violating a self-defined gender norm – to give you “hands-on” experience.

Choose a natural (i.e., non-laboratory) setting in which to violate a gender norm.  Think through clearly what norm you’re going to violate–make sure it’s a gender norm.  Work with a confederate (either someone in class or a friend) and have her/him record the reactions to your norm violation as well as your behavior during the violation.  You may also convince your confederate to do the gender violation and you be the observer/recorder.  Sometimes the reactions will be minimal; other times it will be strong; remember, no reaction is a reaction!!!  Be sure to record all reactions while they are happening.  In addition, you must provide some physical evidence!!  In the past, students have used cameras, video and tape recorders, flyers, receipts, etc. to capture reactions and document the project.

Your report should be about 7-10 pages, typewritten, and should include the following:

1.  State specifically the gender norm you intend to violate.  Explain why or how it is a gender norm, and provide cultural context.

2.  State in clear details exactly what you did.  Report any variations in your procedure.  For example, you may try your experiment in one setting, then in another.  You may compare different variations of the same norm violation, or change the degrees of violation.  Give all the details of the violation process.

3.  Describe your experience subjectively in two different ways:  (1) your feelings as you prepared and engaged in the norm-violating behavior;  (2) your feelings about how other people reacted to you.

4.  Report in great detail the general and specific reactions of others to your behavior. Provide the observations of your confederate.  If you get no reaction at all, or a mild reaction, report that.  Report on the effects of any variations in your procedure, and what you think the significance of any (or no) reaction is.

5.  What did you learn from this assignment?  About yourself?  About your culture?  How does a theory of gendered embodiment help you understand your experience?

**Don’t do anything illegal.  Stop whenever you are too uncomfortable with the situation.  If you explain your behavior to anyone–report it.  Be creative!

Students react very positively to this assignment and find it to be incredibly eye opening.  Here is feedback from a couple of people who have done this activity:

The impact Char’s gender norm violation activity had on me had more to do with providing insight for how people who are gender variant are treated than on how I understand my own gender identity. – which I suppose was the point at the end of the day. I became hyper aware of how I was not performing a masculine gender well enough, in comparison to those around me. However, I also experienced first hand what it was like to have my gender policed when I was using a public bathroom.

What was more extraordinary for me was that the only thing I did differently was try to hide the fact I had long hair. I wear pants, and I wear loose fitting shirts, and I try to dress in a way that does not emphasize the fact that I have breasts on a regular basis. So, I present myself as being more masculine by the way I dress, in general.

However, I have never been told that I was using the wrong bathroom before. This was very shocking and very confusing for me. I felt that the rest of the people I interacted with knew I was a woman, and here, in the women’s restroom, I was told that I needed to use the men’s room. Who knew the length of my hair would be something that could cause so much drama for a person who had a full bladder?

So, in short, this experiment gave me brief insight and sparked interest in learning more about how gender variant people experience the world around us…not to mention working to be the best cis-gendered queer ally I can to all my gender queer friends. – Meghan Karels ’04

This activity taught me a great deal about gender norms and values in our society.  I found it invaluable and far superior to simply reading about social expectation.  Learning this way enabled me to better empathize with those whose sex and gender do not relate as society expects.  I also feel better empowered to challenge people who ignorantly continue the perpetuation of gender normativity. – Anonymous

Trayvon Martin’s death has drawn a great deal of attention from people throughout the United States.  Our own Sociological Images has written about the tragedy in three distinct posts (all found here).

This event occurred while my introduction to sociology courses were discussing race.  My students, logically, brought up his murder when we were discussing racial formation and racial stereotypes.  This turned into the most engaged, energetic and lively discussion we had all semester.

Students were, as they should be, angered.  They were frustrated with a society that allowed such tragedies to happen and disappointed that more people were not demanding Zimmerman be prosecuted.  I’m willing to go on a limb, however, and suggest not all students will feel the same way.

Despite my students’ passion, they brought up a variety of questions I believe their peers (and broader society) will have:

1) If Zimmerman is latino, is the case still about race?

Absolutely.  This question led our class to have a great conversation about the internalization of racial stereotypes and the impact of institutional and interpersonal racism on individuals.  We watched “A Girl Like Me” and discussed Kenneth Clark‘s original doll experiment.  (A group of my students are even setting out to do the same activity with children who are not black.)

2) Why would Zimmerman suspect Trayvon of suspicious behavior at all?

This question led to a great conversation about the impact of stereotypes on the perceptions we have of one another.  Using labeling theory, our class was able to discuss the way in which society ascribes particular labels to people based on the variety of statuses we embody.  These labels affect the way that people perceive us and the ways in which they interpret our behavior (such as the wearing of a hoodie).   In order to lead a discussion on labeling by race and gender, we watched the following clips from my favorite teaching show, “What Would You Do“: the bike theft, and racism in America (parts one and two).  Students immediately connected the material to the Trayvon case and their own lives (I had them do an in class writing on how they have been effected by labeling).

3) Why isn’t Zimmerman being charged?

Students, particularly those from states that do not have “Stand Your Ground” laws, are particularly puzzled by the fact that Zimmerman was not arrested.  Teachers who wish to discuss this topic can explore the history of these laws here.  My students, generally, were appalled by the interpretation of these laws (as addressed in that article) and their expansion.  Many expressed personal fear, and others remarked that, had Zimmerman been black, he would have been arrested immediately.

I encourage you to have conversations about Trayvon Martin in your classroom – not to exploit his death but to make students aware of the prevalence of such cases.  Hopefully, our students will one day be in positions in which they make and enforce laws and policies that will treat all people equally.

As a way of teaching students about contemporary white privilege, many faculty members turn to the classic piece White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh.  However, my peers and I have found that students often resist its content, in part because of the article’s date of publication.  The original piece was produced in 1988 making it older than many current college students. Nevertheless, it is clear that McIntosh’s article has a lot to teach contemporary students, if used the correct way.

The Activity

In order to thwart student’s immediate dismissal of McIntosh’s article as outdated, this activity encourages students to use their own knowledge and critical thinking skills to update the piece such that it fits with current race relations.  The activity consists of two parts taking place on two distinct days (unless you have a three hour block class): in part one students are expected to update McIntosh’s examples to match modern social patterns and, in part two, they add new, contemporary examples of white privilege to the list.  Please note, this activity is traditionally more successful if used later in the semester when students have reached some level of awareness of systemic racial discrimination.

Part One

For the first part of the activity students are expected to come to class having read McIntosh’s article.  Once seated, they are divided into groups of four to five students and handed a slip of paper containing eight of the twenty-six privileges. They are then asked to work together to select items on the list that they perceive to be outdated and/or want to discuss as a larger class.  Each group is responsible for choosing at least one item on their list and must be prepared to explain why they think the item is outdated and how they would change it to fit modern race relations.  After 20 minutes of small group conversation, we reconvene and discuss each groups’ chosen privilege to discuss.  As the instructor I am always prepared with current examples of blatant racial bias through anecdotes and statistics in all of these areas.  Discussion about intersectionality and geography are also important to extend the analysis of students on these issues.

Part Two

For the second portion of this activity, students are expected to add new examples of privileges to McIntosh’s list.  They are again placed in groups of four or five students and asked to brainstorm new items to place on the checklist.

Words of Caution

Over the past several years I have had great success using this activity to discuss the concept of white privilege.  However, there are a few common errors made by instructors that warrant words of caution.

One challenge with this activity, and in teaching in diverse classrooms, is to make sure that everyone is being intellectually challenged by the material without leaving any students behind. A second challenge is the tendency of professors to ignorantly exercise and reproduce the very elements of white privilege discussed in the article.  Students of color have distinct backgrounds and paths to a class on race relations relative to both their white peers and one another (some of the challenges faced by students of color in mostly-white classrooms are addressed in the chapter by Logan et al in this volume).  One of the most common transgressions committed by instructors is to, much like mainstream white society, assume that all people of a particular racial group have had similar experiences.  As a corollary, they often call on people of color to speak as “experts” for their racial or ethnic groups, a challenge mentioned by many students in the edited volume Making a Difference: University Students of Color Speak Out (Lesage, Ferber, Storrs and Wong 2002) and an experience many of my friends in college were forced to deal with.  Through this activity, and any activity in class, it should never be assumed that a person of color can speak for his or her race, much like it should never be assumed that a woman can speak for all women or a man for all men.