Below is a guest post by Marie E. Berry, a Sociology PhD student at UCLA.  Marie studies the political engagement of women after mass violence.  In the post below, she suggests an activity to accompany Megan Comfort’s recent special feature.

Who is affected when an individual goes to prison? Megan Comfort’s recent special feature, “Repercussions of Incarceration on Close Relationships,” is a powerful reminder of the wide-reaching impact of the U.S.’s high incarceration rates on our society. This article would be an important addition to any class that tackles issues related the criminal justice system, class, race, or inequality in general. It could also be used in the context of an international human rights law class, especially as it references the ways different countries are tackling the issue of incarcerated mothers.

Incarceration rates have increased at an astonishing pace over the past few decades. As Comfort notes, the number of people behind bars in the U.S. has jumped from approximately 380,000 in the mid-1970s to 2.2 million on any given day today. We don’t yet have a way of assessing the full social effects of this, although we can begin to imagine some impacts given that just over one-half of all prisoners report that they are a parent to a child under 18 (Glaze and Muraschak 2010).

The following exercise would be useful for two primary purposes: first, to help students comprehend the vast number of people who are affected when an individual goes to prison, and second, to begin a discussion what this means in the context of the class, racial, and regional inequalities that exist within the criminal justice system. This activity could be done individually and is written as such; however, it could also be done as a class with several volunteers completing the exercise on the white board.

  1. Imagine that each member of the class will be spending the following 3 years in prison.
  2. Take out a blank sheet of paper, and start by placing your name at the center of the paper.
  3. Draw one ring of “ripples.” Within this ring, list the names of the people in your life that will be the most directly impacted by your absence. Think here about immediate family members, best friends, etc.
  4. Think now about how your absence will affect each individual in this ripple, using what you learned in Comfort’s article.  Specifically, think about the following questions:
    • Who would come visit you?
    • What responsibilities do you currently have that will have to be adopted by someone else? (Financial responsibilities? Support obligations?)
    • Which relationships will be strained by your absence?
    • Using what you learned in Comfort’s article, who in your life might go through a “secondary prisonization”?
  5. Next, draw a second ring.  On this ripple, list the names of other people who will be directly affected by your absence. Think here about your employer, your classmates, your group of friends, etc.
    • How will your absence affect each individual in this ripple?
  6. Outside of these ripples, try to list the names of everybody else you interact with on a regular basis. What impact will your absence have on these individuals?

While this activity doesn’t fully assess the network of individuals whose lives are affected by the incarceration of a single individual, it will help students grasp the scope of our penal system’s impact on our society.  It might also be helpful to note that this isn’t a “put yourself in someone else’s shoes” exercise, which might lead students to make assumptions about the reasons for their hypothetical “imprisonment.” Instead, it is a chance to begin to assess the interconnectedness of our society and thus the number of lives that are affected each time someone goes to prison.

It would then be good to follow this activity with some general discussion questions.  These could be discussed in small groups or as a class.

  1. This activity began to give us an idea of the vast number of people who would be affected if you were to go to prison. Now, let’s consider these ripple effects in the context of what we know about the profiles of the US prison population. What are some of the family, community, and society level effects of incarceration rates, given that the people most likely to end up behind bars are extremely poor, African American, and live in areas of comparable disadvantage?
  2. What does Loïc Wacquant mean when he refers to the phenomenon of “hyperincarceration”? In which ways does the US criminal justice system target policing and punishment policies “first by class, second by race, and third by place”?
  3. Comfort describes how female visitors to the prison are often asked to change clothes, which they must find in a bin of discarded attire in the visitor’s center. How does this restriction on the individuality and autonomy of the visitors parallel similar restrictions on the incarcerated population? What impacts might this have on an individual/family/community/etc.? How does this process reflect what Foucault described as a process of dismantling of the self?
  4. How might incarceration continue to have ripple effects once an individual is released?

Is “Latino” a race or an ethnicity? As sociologists, we are quick to refer to “Latino” as an ethnicity, but will just as easily include “Latino” as a racial category next to “White,” “Black,” and “Asian.” So, which is it? And why does it matter?obligation

Wendy D. Roth tackles this question in her recent special feature on The Society Pages “Creating a ‘Latino’ Race.” This feature would be a great addition to any discussion of race and ethnicity in the United States and how those categories have evolved over time for White, Asian and Latino immigrants and citizens. This topic would be ideal for the first weeks of a course on Race and Ethnicity or to introduce the topic in an Intro to Sociology class. This would also be a good topic for a Research Methods class when discussing how we classify racial categories and why this practice can be controversial.

Use the following activity in class to get a conversation going about race, ethnicity and Latino identity:

First, hand out an example of the Census questions on race and ethnicity. Have students fill them out on their own. Then ask:

1. Did you feel that the available categories on this form lined up with your own racial and ethnic identity? Why or why not?

2. Do you think that having “Hispanic” as an ethnicity and not a race makes sense? Why or why not?

3. What benefits do you see to having “Hispanic” listed as an ethnicity? What drawbacks?

4. What might you change about this form if you could? Do you believe there are better ways to classify people racially?


Then, start a conversation about Roth’s finding using these questions:

1. According to Roth’s research, how is the way that Puerto Rican and Dominican migrants understand race and ethnicity quite different from how Americans traditionally think of race and distinguish it from ethnicity?

2. When Latino immigrants come to the United States, how do they fit into the racial classifications already in place (now and in the past)? How do these classifications not line up with how they identify themselves?

3. According to Roth’s finding, how does the experience of Latinos in the United States differ based on skin color? What does this say about race and racism in the United States?

4. Why have many Latino immigrants seen it as advantageous to remain “bicultural” instead of “passing” for (non-Hispanic) white?

5. Why is the Latino race/ethnicity question a controversial topic? Why does it matter if Latino people are understood as an “ethnicity” or as a “race” by the US government? What might this potential change mean for Latino Americans? How would such a change disrupt notions of strict racial categories held by many Americans?


Paul & Lawrence-11

Below is an activity I’ve seen used a few different ways.  The activity helps to illustrate the issue of mate selection for forming a family; it also gets students thinking about gender, sexuality, and the life course. 

First, have students think about their expectations of what their immediate family will be like someday. What are their plans for the future?  Or, if they are already married or in a domestic partnership, what is their family like?

Then, have students draw a future mate randomly from the list below, which has been adapted from several versions of this exercise.  The trick is that the draw is indeed random, so there will be same-sex, interracial, or other couples.

  1. A middle-class, white man who travels three weeks each month for his job and has three kids from a previous marriage of whom he has custody. Currently, he has a live-in nanny but would rather have a full-time parent in the home for his kids.
  2. A wealthy, African-American woman who owns a publishing business in Chicago.
  3. A working class, Latino man from Costa Rica who wishes to live near his family in his home country.
  4. An upwardly-mobile white woman who wishes never to have kids or at least not to care for them herself. (If you want kids, you will have to be the sole parent.)
  5. A female, Presbyterian minister whose first job assignment is in central Kansas.
  6. An African-American male professor who has tenure at Harvard.
  7. A English man who wishes to live in the US but cannot get residency for 3-4 years as a result of the immigration waiting list for English citizens into this country.
  8. A white, male Florida “cracker” whose family has owned a fishing business in Everglades City for two generations. He plans to adopt the business in five years and needs to continue working for the business until that time.
  9. Martha Stewart’s sister, a middle-class, white woman who plans to be a homemaker.
  10. An Indian woman (US resident) whose parents are planning to arrange a marriage for her with someone other than you.

Students must suppose they will fall in love with this person within five years and plan to form a family with them.  Then, they should think about the following questions:

How will their future plans be affected by this selection? What will their other family members think?  Where will they live? What about kids?  What is the likelihood that they would actually consider marrying this person?

Check out the myriad posts on Soc Images about marriage and family, and consider coupling one or two with this exercise!

We just got the pager network up at #SeaSides BBQ


TSP’s Kyle Green recently spoke with Mary Joyce about digital activism.  This short podcast would be great in a class on media, transnational activism, or a variety of other topics.  Most, if not all, students will be able to connect to the material, making it relevant to their everyday lives and a great addition to a lecture.  Here are some questions to accompany the podcast.


  1. What is digital activism?
  2. Have you participated in anything that could be considered digital activism recently?  Did you consider your participation as “activism” at the time?
  3. What are the strengths of digital activism?  Can you think of any pitfalls?
  4. As a related post on our sister blog, Cyborgology, points out, the United Nations declared that disconnecting people from the Internet violates their human rights.  Do you think access to the Internet should be a human right?  Why or why not?

Note that the project’s website also has some tools that could be utilized for the lecture, including a visual summary of their preliminary findings.


Office Hours recently chatted with  Shai Dromi about his recent article, Penny for your Thoughts: Beggars and the Exercise of Morality in Daily Life. The article focuses on how people experience and understand interactions with needy people begging for money on the street.

This article (or interview only) would be great for use in a sociology course because it skillfully addresses how the concept of morality is constructed when we are faced with people that need help. Dromi finds that passersby–whether they decided to help the beggars or not–represented their own behavior as being appropriate and moral. Use the following questions to help students better understand this concept and to facilitate a classroom discussion on this topic:


1. How is this research different than past research on beggars?  How has past research framed the beggar-passerby relationship?

2. Where was this research conducted? In your own city, how often do you see people begging for money on the street?

3. Was there a common interaction among the people Dromi interviewed and the beggars? Did this surprise you at all?

4. How did the people Dromi interviewed describe their choices to help or not help the beggars in terms of their moral character? How did these strategies help them to maintain their perception of themselves as moral persons? What does this tell us about the concept of morality?

5. How did the passersby attempt to identify the “authenticity” of the beggars? What type of clues did they look for? How did these markers of “authenticity” influence whether they helped the person or not?


The International Criminal Court (ICC)

The roundtable on international criminal justice would be a great way to introduce students to issues facing the International Criminal Court (ICC).  The ICC is located in The Hague, Netherlands.  While most, if not all, of your students will likely never get to see the ICC live, the ICC has several tools available that will make teaching about it more concrete.

First, the ICC provides live streaming of the proceedings in its two courtrooms (with a half-hour delay) in both English and French.  The ICC also has a youtube channel, where many court proceedings are publically available.  If you assign the roundtable as homework, one supplemental assignment could involve asking students to either watch live streaming of a case (depending on the date and time of available trials) or view several minutes of a trial on youtube.  This will help students visualize what takes place at the ICC.

In class, students could get into groups and discuss what they saw on youtube or the live stream.  What trial did they watch, and who was the defendant?  What was he (or she) accused of?  Was the ICC what they expected?  Did anything surprise them about the proceedings?

An alternate activity could  include further discussion regarding the types of crimes that the ICC has jurisdiction over.  For example, before reading the roundtable, students could discuss what crimes they think should be considered crimes of international law.  Then, they could read the roundtable, as well as the part of the Rome Statute (the treaty that constituted the ICC) dealing with jurisdiction of the ICC, found here.  This could be followed by a discussion of the crimes that are included in its jurisdiction and what students think should have been included.  Were they surprised by the inclusion of certain types of crimes or the exclusion of others?  Why are these particular crimes considered international crimes?

One of my favorite ways to teach about authority is to draw upon Stanley Milgram’s famous experiments.  As many (if not all) of you know, Milgram designed a series of experiments to see whether people would shock others up to lethal levels when instructed to do so by a scientist.  In most cases and depending on various situational characteristics, the majority of people complied, showing they would shock someone up to lethal levels.  You can read more about the experiments on a Backstage Sociologist post, found here.

A BBC documentary covered an effort to recreate the experiment a few years ago, which found similar results (with a small number of total participants, however).  The entire documentary is on Youtube, but if you’re worried about time, this 6-minute clip shows the actual experiment and includes brief discussions about authority.

I’ve used this clip generally to talk about authority as well as more specifically to illustrate how human rights violations may take place.  This clip is also a great introduction to a discussion about Weber’s types of authority.

Over on Citings & Sightings, Hollie found a great NY Times opinion piece by Dan Slater called “Darwin Was Wrong About Dating,” which analyzes theories of dating norms through evolutionary psychology.  I would definitely incorporate this article into a course or lesson on gender norms in sexual behavior. By breaking down certain Darwinian theories of gendered mating practices, the piece does a great job of showing how such theories can fall apart when examined through a sociological lens.

Students very often come to sociology classes with assumptions about fundamental, biological differences between men and women when it comes to heterosexual dating practices (“men are naturally more aggressive and compete for the attention of women”, “women are less promiscuous because they need a male partner to provide for children”, “men have a biological drive to spread their seed”, etc.)

Try the following activity in your class to help get students thinking about the social construction of dating practices:

Before students have read the article (probably in the beginning of the semester), ask the class to start naming off various beliefs about dating practices and write them on the board. For example, you could ask: “What do you (or others, or certain scientists) think is natural, or biological, about heterosexual dating practices?”

Then, after they have read the article (this could be in the same class period or between two class periods), ask them if they still believe anything about dating practices and norms is biologically determined. You could have them break into small groups and look through the research cited in the article, and then pose the question to the class. Then, as they begin to explore the various social norms that determine dating practices, ask how this changes their view on dating and sexual encounters in general. This will surely start a lively discussion about our  society’s taken-for -granted assumptions about gender difference.



If you’ve taught a class, you’ve likely struggled with getting all (or maybe even some!) students to complete required readings.  Sociology Source’s Nathan Palmer recently posted a great assignment to help with this issue, and we wanted to re-post it below.  Thanks, Nathan!


Question: Would you like it if most your students came to class having completed the assigned reading? Would you like it if they came to class with detailed notes so they could engage with their classmates better in discussions? Finally would you like to have a detailed outline of all of the reading you assign in your classes?

Well than do I have the assignment for you.

I have had amazing success with requiring my students to turn in notes covering the week’s reading (Download Direction Here)[1]. The notes have to be in outline form and, as I tell them, “need to be written as if the reader had never seen the text.” The notes are graded for their clarity and coverage of the topics in the text. Because these are weekly notes and I want to be able to grade them quickly, I created a check mark grading scheme that allows me to use a rubric with ease.

I incentivize the reading notes by allowing them to use them on both the essay midterm and final. “Think of your reading notes as a cheat sheet in a time capsule,” I tell my classes. I sign the front page of the students notes and then only allow notes that have my signature to be used on the test to try and dissuade students from creating other cheat sheets.

“How Long Should My Notes Be”

Reading notes are great because they teach students how to curate information. We live in a society that is awash with information. Consumption is often free or cheap, understanding is less available, but curation is the rarest of all. Our students will work in an information economy that pays people to shift through the haystack for needles. I stress the vocational value of this assignment to my students because they are likely to see reading notes as a “busy work” drudgery.

I tell my students that their challenge is to separate the hay from the needles. If they turn in notes that are so detailed and overfilled with information, I give them a grade similar to if they had turned in barely anything at all[2] Synthesizing information is a skill that students struggle with, this assignment fosters it.

Crowdsourced Class Notes

The by product of this assignment is a crowdsourced outline of your class texts. Last year it occurred to me that I could use my students’ reading notes to fill out my class notes. Each week I took the best reading notes and paired them with my class/lecture notes to create a top notch outline of what we read that week and what I wanted my students to learn. Now that I am teaching Social Change for the second time, I have found my class notes invaluable.

I’m not always able to reread all of the assigned readings for a given week, nor do I always need to (some of these texts I’ve read and taught more than a dozen times). Having a “CliffsNotes” guide on what we are reading and what I want my students to take from it, allows me to spend time thinking up new class activities and experiences. Put another way, my notes help me quickly re-remember WHAT I want my students to learn, so that I can spend most of my time focusing on HOW they will learn it.

(Psst… if you like this activity and want to hear more about it, check out The Sociological Source Podcast Ep 11. Chris & I talk about it in some depth.)

  1. I want to thank Dr. Susan Wortmann at Nebraska Wesleyan University for giving me this idea. She used this assignment, in a different way, in her graduate social theory course that I took from her. She was one of my best teachers, so stealing from her only makes sense.  ↩
  2. Side Note: you should see the looks on my overachieving students when they get a low grade on their 16 page reading notes. They never think I’m actually going to down grade them until I do.  ↩




As we all scramble to wrap up syllabus planning for the Spring semester, I wanted to share a great podcast I’m adding to mine!

Last week, Office Hours sat down with Joshua I. Newman and Michael Giardina to talk about their recent book Sport, Spectacle, and NASCAR Nation: Consumption and the Cultural Politics of Neoliberalism. Their conversation covered topics including the whiteness of stock car racing, religion and rebellion at the race track, and the production and consumption of Southern identity. 

I’m using this for an American Race Relations class, but it would also work great in a Methods course, as the authors talk about the ethics of conducting ethnographic research with groups of people who are very different from themselves.

The following are some questions to have them answer at home or to get the discussion started in class:

1. Which political party has incorporated NASCAR and NASCAR fans into their campaign strategy? How do the author explain this tactical choice? What do you think about this campaign strategy?

2. The authors point out that NASCAR has attempted to increase the diversity of its fan base. According to the authors’ research, how have some fans responded to this move?

3. What does it mean to “perform whiteness” and what are a few examples given by the authors? Why, according to the authors was this type of performance perhaps more prevalent at racetracks not located in the South?

4. Describe the methods used in this research. Why do the authors stress that this method was essential to address their research questions? Why was this method also challenging for the authors? Explain.

5. What applications might this research have for today’s political climate? How might NASCAR nation have changed under an Obama presidency versus a Bush presidency?