Lady Gaga

For the most recent issue of Contexts (Spring 2010), our culture editor David Grazian sat down with journalist and novelist Chuck Klosterman to discuss pop culture from a sociological standpoint. While this is not the traditional type of article for classroom use, we believe it could spark a good discussion among students about sociological understandings of popular culture in their own worlds. This activity would be particularly useful in a Media and Culture class or an Intro class.

For this activity, students should either read the edited exchange “Glam Metal and Guilty Pleasures: Sailing Away with Chuck Klosterman and David Grazian” or listen to segments of the interview (Part 1 & Part 2) online.

With their new sociological outlook on popular culture, have the students pick a facet of pop culture or a cultural phenomenon that is of sociological interest and that they are particularly interested in (e.g. Lady Gaga’s latest video, The Biggest Loser, pop-country music, America’s Next Top Model, video games, American Idol, Jersey Shore, Glee, Twitter, celebrities’ extra-marital affairs, and the list goes on…).   You can give students latitude in choosing which element of pop culture to explore. Then, have them interview at least one person they know (friend, roommate, sibling, parent, etc.) about their chosen cultural phenomenon. Students could then write a reflection of the interview or share what took place during the interview in groups during class.



Here is another idea for how Downey and Gibbs’ feature article  “How Schools Really Matter” (found in the Spring 2010 issue of Contexts) could be used in the classroom:


Directions:  Given that much educational inequality is due to disparities during the summer months, some people have proposed year-round schooling.  Multiple schools have developed this model, which generally  involves 6-8 weeks of class followed by a 2-week break.

Divide the class into two groups and orchestrate a debate on year-round schooling.  The debate will work best if students are given time to prepare beforehand (either assign the groups in the previous class or bring materials for them to use to prepare in class).

This assignment should be used after students read “How Schools Really Matter” by Douglas B. Downey and Benjamin G. Gibbs (found in the most recent issue of Contexts).  The article would also work great paired with excerpts from Annette Lareau’s Unequal Childhoods. For example, it could be paired with the first 10 pages of the book.

Once students have read these two pieces, assign a short reflection essay as homework or as an in-class reflection  Potential directions include the following:

In this short response, you should reflect on your childhood.  Develop a list of the resources you had in your household and the extracurricular activities that you were enrolled in (both through school and outside of school).  Think about how these various resources contributed to your intellectual development.  Did your parents have a very “hands-on” (concerted cultivation) approach or were they more “hands-off” (natural growth model)?



Using article Permanent Impermanence by Syed Ali from the most recent issue of Contexts, Graduate Student Editorial Board member Shannon Golden offers our blog these ideas for use in the classroom. The full text of this article is available for free online!

This article would be great for a class or unit on immigration, globalization, or world cities.


1) For a class that has covered immigration policy:

-Compare and contrast immigration and citizenship policy in Dubai with that of other immigrant-receiving countries, such as the U.S., Japan, Australia, Canada, or western European countries.

-Do you agree with the author’s conclusion that Dubai’s policy may represent the future?

2) To focus on the intersection of biography and social structure, the instructor could:

-Provide biographical/narrative case studies of several foreign workers in Dubai, one that would represent a blue-collar laborer, another middle class example, and an upper class professional. Ask students to develop a sociological analysis of these lives using info from the article, illustrating how social structures are experienced differently by different groups of people.

3) Suggested small group discussion questions:

-What are the strengths and weaknesses of Dubai’s immigration policies? What are the intended and unintended consequences?

-Who are the actors who have a stake in determining the policies? Who benefits from this system? Who loses in this system?

– Discuss the following concepts in relation to this article: power, citizenship, labor, home, rights, legality, belonging

– The author discusses Paul Krugman’s writing on “the Dubai effect”: “Writing in 2006, Krugman said that a guest worker program could amount to a dangerous betrayal of the United States’ democratic ideals. It would, he wrote, basically form an entrenched caste system of temporary workers whose interests would largely be ignored and whose rights would be circumscribed. Further, their wages would undoubtedly be less than those of people with greater labor market mobility, though the ripple effects of a glut of guest workers would be expected to lower wages for all workers in sectors where guest workers are “bonded” to their employers, Dubai-style.” (p.29) Do you agree with Krugman’s speculations about what would happen if the U.S. adopted similar policies to Dubai? Discuss the implications of such a change.

4) Have the students read one of the “recommended resources” and discuss its connection to this article.

This assignment would be particularly useful in a class where students are writing papers on topics of their choice.  It will help students find and interpret scholarly sources for their papers, and time could be spent in class sharing Discoveries in order for students to learn about other potential sources.  The most recent Discoveries are available on the Discoveries Blog (see website below).


1.  Pick an article in a peer-reviewed sociology journal that relates to the current class topics.

2.  Go to and read sample Discoveries.

3. Using the Discoveries section from Contexts as a model, write your own Discovery to introduce the article you chose to an audience that is not trained in sociology.  Be sure to identify the author’s main argument and the evidence used to support the argument, but keep it short and to the point.

4.  Be prepared to share the Discovery with the class.

This learning activity is the first of a package of exercises to be used with material from the most recent issue of Contexts (Spring 2010). Keep an eye out over the next few weeks for material to accompany the newest issue!

This in-class exercise asks students to evaluate the state of love and marriage in the United States today and to decide whether they think the changes are problematic or progressive. The activity was designed to accompany “The Changing Landscape of Love and Marriage” by Kathleen E. Hull, Ann Meier, and Timothy Ortyl in the new Spring 2010 issue.

Directions: Read the following statistics and statements about the state of relationships in the U.S. today from the article “The Changing Landscape of Love and Marriage” by Kathleen E. Hull, Ann Meier, and Timothy Ortyl. After reading each statement, decide if you think it is a problem or not. Circle “Yes” or “No.” In the space below each statement, briefly describe your reasoning.

Do you believe that these changes in love and marriage present a problem to our society? 

1) Nearly half of all marriages end in divorce.

Problem? Yes   or     No
Why? __________________________________________________________________________

2) People are getting married later than they used to; the median age at first marriage
is now 28 for men and 26 for women, compared to 23 and 20 in 1960. 

Problem? Yes   or     No
Why? __________________________________________________________________________

3) The proportion of adults who never marry remains low but is climbing; in 2006, 19%
of men and 13% of women aged 40-44 had never married.

Problem? Yes   or     No
Why? __________________________________________________________________________

4) Unmarried cohabitation has gone from a socially stigmatized practice to a normal
 stage in the adult life course (more than half of all American marriages now
begin as cohabitations).

Problem? Yes   or     No
Why? __________________________________________________________________________

5) Roughly one-third of all births are to unmarried parents.

Problem? Yes   or     No
Why? __________________________________________________________________________

6) Today, people feel freer to marry later, to end unhappy marriages, and to forego
marriage altogether.

Problem? Yes   or     No
Why? __________________________________________________________________________

7) Americans have established a pattern of high marriage and remarriage rates,
frequent divorce and separation, and more short-lived cohabitations. 

Problem? Yes   or     No
Why? __________________________________________________________________________

8) Straight women are more likely to rate faithfulness and lifelong commitment as
 extremely important compared to straight men and sexual minorities.

Problem? Yes   or     No
Why? __________________________________________________________________________ 

Based on your responses above, which position described in the article do you most
 agree with? Circle one.
     1. The marital decline position, which argues that changes in intimacy are a significant cause for concern. OR
    2. The marital resilience perspective, which, in contrast, argues that changes in family life have actually strengthened the quality of intimate relationships, including marriages.
After you have finished, discuss your responses with a small group of classmates. Does your group agree?

This active learning activity was written by Amy Alsup, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Minnesota.  Amy wrote the activity to accompany “Community Organizing and Social Change” by Randy Stoecker (Contexts, Winter 2009).


You are a community organizer working to address some major social problems in your community.  Read the scenario below and answer the questions with your group members.  For Question #3, use the supplies given to you to create posters with slogans.


You live in a large urban neighborhood in Minneapolis that is strongly stratified by class.  The houses on the Southern side of your neighborhood are quite dilapidated, crime is rampant, vital businesses and jobs are scarce, and the neighborhood is in need of revitalization.   Most people in this section of the neighborhood make a median income below the poverty line.  The Northern side of the neighborhood is more affluent.  There are numerous businesses within walking distance, crime has generally remained minimal, and there is a Neighborhood Watch program in place.

Recently, the local news media has exposed an upsurge in crime in the entire neighborhood.  A housing crisis is occurring, drug use in the community is extensive and progressively visible, and the school district is in shambles after dropout rates have surged and teacher retention has dwindled.   Community members on both the Northern and Southern ends of the neighborhood have increasingly expressed concern about the state of their community.  There is a neighborhood organization in place; but all regular members are upper-middle class, and most neighborhood projects and initiatives focus on beautifying the Northern section of town.

Community members from the Southern part of town have recently expressed anger and frustration about their lack of status in community operations.  Local government representatives are deliberating on whether or not to install a community policing program in the community or to explore other options.  The housing crisis is becoming a wide-scale dilemma, now affecting the middle class and not simply impoverished community members.  All families are concerned about the poor resources in their schools and the lack of quality educators.  The existing neighborhood group now realizes that they have a crucial role in rallying ALL community members to address the various problems facing the community, and they must come up with some solutions before the upcoming community meeting.

Worksheet: Community Organizing & Social Change

(1) List the social problems in the order in which you will address them. (There are 10 spaces, but if you identify more or less than this, feel free to add or subtract spaces).

1. _____________________________________________

2. _____________________________________________

3. _____________________________________________

4. ____________________________________________

5. ____________________________________________

6. ____________________________________________

7. ____________________________________________

8. ____________________________________________

9. ____________________________________________

10. ___________________________________________

(2) Why did you decide to address social problems in this particular order?  Explain your rationale for choosing the first social problem.  Why does is this problem top priority?  Why is the last concern you listed a lower priority?


(3)  Use the poster board and markers to create slogans to generate support for your cause.  List the slogans you use in the space below.




(4)  Why did you choose these slogans?  Do they appeal to emotions, humor, or moral shocks?


(5)  What strategies and tactics will you use to spread your message?  Will your tactics center on protest, direct action, education, garnering media attention, etc.— or a combination of these activities? Did your group choose strategies and tactics within or outside of societal norms and institutionalized means?  Were tactics legal or illegal?


(6) List your affiliates and opponents.  With which organizations, community groups, social movements, and politicians will you align?  Which groups will you oppose?  Name movement resources (ie: networks, affiliated organizations, money sources, and advocates) from which you will draw.


Instructor/Facilitator Directions: (Detach before handing out to students)

Directions: Have students divide into groups of 5 people.  Give the groups one worksheet per group and assign the group member roles as follows: one recorder, two reporters, one time-keeper, and one creative director.  The creative director will be responsible for making posters with slogans with the poster board and markers provided to each group.  Each group will act as community organizers who desire to address the dire conditions of the neighborhood. At the beginning of the class period, you may choose to assign each group different strategies and tactics to help provoke debate or allow group members to choose their own.

Have group members read the vignette and answer the questions on the worksheet.  Allow group members 15-20 minutes of class time to organize a plan of action.

Then, in a simulation of a community meeting, act as a facilitator.  Allow members of each group to take turns presenting social issues of primary concern, networks, resources, slogans and plans of action. Then, initiate a debate on these issues.  Let each group present the social issues of primary importance and their strategies and tactics to address these issues first.  Then, ask each group to defend their positions.  Have students share slogans and explain who they consider to be allies and who they consider to be opponents.  The debate and discussion will end when each group has shared their approach.

The following learning activity can be used to spark discussion in class when used along with “Rights Activism in China”  by Ching Kwan Lee in  Contexts Summer 2008.

Below is a simplified list of the 30 human rights accorded to every human being in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Place a “+” by the 5 human rights that you think are the most important and an “-” by the 5 rights that you think are the least important.

_________ Right to Equality
_________ Freedom from Discrimination
_________ Right to Life, Liberty, Personal Security
_________ Freedom from Slavery
_________ Freedom from Torture and Degrading Treatment
_________ Right to Recognition as a Person before the Law
_________ Right to Equality before the Law
_________ Right to Remedy by Competent Tribunal
_________ Freedom from Arbitrary Arrest and Exile
_________ Right to Fair Public Hearing
_________ Right to be Considered Innocent until Proven Guilty
_________ Freedom from Interference with Privacy, Family, Home and Correspondence
_________ Right to Free Movement in and out of the Country
_________ Right to Asylum in other Countries from Persecution
_________ Right to a Nationality and the Freedom to Change It
_________ Right to Marriage and Family
_________ Right to Own Property
_________ Freedom of Belief and Religion
_________ Freedom of Opinion and Information
_________ Right of Peaceful Assembly and Association
_________ Right to Participate in Government and in Free Elections
_________ Right to Social Security
_________ Right to Desirable Work and to Join Trade Unions
_________ Right to Rest and Leisure
_________ Right to Adequate Living Standard
_________ Right to Education
_________ Right to Participate in the Cultural Life of Community
_________ Right to a Social Order that Articulates this Document
_________ Community Duties Essential to Free and Full Development
_________ Freedom from State or Personal Interference in the above Rights

Questions to consider:

1.     Explain the rationale behind the rights you chose as most important and those that you listed as least important.

2.     How do you think your culture impacts what you view as important human rights?

3.     Are there any rights that you think should be included that are not on this list?  Are there any rights that you think are unnecessary?

4.     Does it seem like some rights are prioritized more than others today?

This case study can be used with Julie E. Artis’s “Breastfeed at Your Own Risk.”  The article, which appeared in Contexts in Fall 2009, can be read online here.

At the age of 38, Monique gave birth to her fourth child, a daughter named Kayla. Kayla was born with severe developmental and physical disabilities. As Kayla grew older, Monique and her husband tried diligently to get her the help she needed in order to maximize her development. They put her in speech and physical therapy programs and brought her to many health specialists. Caring for Kayla was expensive and time consuming. All of the doctors and specialists Monique talked to told her she needed to spend more time helping Kayla one-on-one; but Monique couldn’t afford to stay at home, and she and her husband each spent more than 50 hours a week at work. Kayla was cared for during the day by a nurse who came to Monique’s home, but after 5:00 p.m. Monique was responsible for her care.

As Kayla grew older, Monique began to fall behind at work and spend less time caring for her three older children. Monique could tell they were resentful of Kayla for this. Kayla required constant supervision and needed help eating, changing clothes and using the bathroom. Kayla became easily frustrated and had trouble sleeping, which kept Monique up many nights. Monique was often discouraged and irritated and felt less happy overall. When Kayla was 5 years old, Monique became pregnant again. Overwhelmed at the prospect of caring for Kayla, her three other children and a newborn baby, Monique considered other options. She found out about a live-in care center about 3 hours away from her home that specialized in taking care of children with disabilities. Monique thought that the care center would be a better home for Kayla than her own. She thought the nurses and the teachers at the center would help Kayla more than she could.

But, the center was very expensive and paying for Kayla to live there until age 18 would prevent Monique from helping any of her other children with their college tuition someday. Also, many of the specialists had told Monique that Kayla might be better off if her mother cared for her. Monique considered the negative things other people would think of her if she brought her daughter to live at the care center instead of caring for her in the home. But, she also considered how much better her life and the lives of her other children might be if they did not have the responsibility of caring for Kayla on a daily basis. She would have more time for her other children and more time to develop her career.

Discussion Questions:

1) If you were in Monique’s shoes, what would you do?

2) What do you think a mother’s role is in this situation?

3) What responsibilities do the larger community and the government have with respect to childcare?  Do they have these same responsibilities regarding childcare for disabled children?

This learning activity was written by Jasmine Harris-LaMothe, a graduate student in the University of Minnesota Sociology department, to accompany “Roll Over Beethoven, There’s A New Way to Be Cool” by Richard A. Peterson in Contexts Summer 2001.

For generations, preference for “high” culture included an interest in cultural mediums not readily available to the masses and signified a marked difference between the elites and everyone else. Today, “elite” status requires a familiarity with more – not just higher – forms of culture. This has significantly changed the way fine arts are depicted in the media and thus understood by the public.

Fill out the questionnaire below on your demographic information and your taste in fine arts. After you’ve completed the questions, turn to the neighbor and discuss your answers.

1.     Male or Female
2.     Age
3.     Where is your hometown?

Answer never, rarely, sometimes, or often to the questions below:

4.     How often do you read a book for pleasure? ___________

5.     How often do you go to the movies?__________

6.     How often do you read a newspaper?___________

7.     How often do you watch the news on television?____________

8.     How often do you watch other types of live (non-DVRed) television?_____________

9.     When was the last time you visited an art museum?____________

10.  When was the last time you visited the theater?_____________

Provide your top three answers to the questions below:

11.  Who are your favorite musical artists?

12.  What are your favorite musical genres?

13.  What are your favorite plays?

14.  What are your favorite ballets?

15.  What are your favorite operas?


  • Are you and/or your partner cultural “omnivores” or “univores?”
  • Are your tastes reflective of your demographic information?
  • Do you think your answers are reflective of changes in medium preferences among the greater population?
  • What implications do the aforementioned changes in medium likes/dislikes have for the future of mass media as a whole?