Sociological Images has posted a new course guide on the Sociology of Sports!

Check it out!

118:366 A quiet corner

One of TSP’s newer additions is The Reading List, which is (the start of) a compilation of both classic and new research that can help inform our understanding of current events.  Soon, it will be organized by theme, so don’t forget to check it out as you plan your courses!

Abolish Death Penalty April 4 2011 Janet Valder 003
Photo by codepinkphoenix via

The Office Hours Team recently sat down with Dr. David Garland, professor of sociology and law at New York University.  He spoke with the team about his most recent book, Peculiar Institution: America’s Death Penalty in the Age of Abolition.  The podcast, found here, would be a great assignment, as it provides a concise review of key arguments he makes in the book.  Below are a few discussion questions you could use in class or assign with the podcast.

1)   In Garland’s eyes, why is the death penalty a peculiar U.S. institution?

2)   What reasons are usually given in favor of the death penalty in the U.S., and what does Garland think about them?

3)   Are there patterns found among defendants on death row?

4)   Do you have an opinion about the use of the death penalty in the U.S.?  If so, what is it?

5)   What is one thing you learned from this podcast?

If the questions are assigned as homework:

6)   Conduct some quick online research.  When did states start outlawing the death penalty?  How many states allow it?

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

I’m planning a Sociology of Families course, and I am definitely putting Eric Klinenberg‘s New York Times article One’s a Crowd and Office Hours interview with him–Eric Klinenberg on Going Solo–on the syllabus. He cites many sociologists and sociological research in the NYT article. This article and the interview would be great for a Soc of Families class or any Intro class on the subject of families or individualism in Western culture.

In any discussion of families in the United States, we cannot forget about all the people (40-50% in prosperous American cities) who choose to live alone.  He points out that, because of new technologies–cell phones, internet, social networking, etc.–people who live alone are not alienated or isolated in ways that they may have been twenty years ago. I love the counterintuitive finding that people who live alone are actually more social than those with families.

This article and interview would be great for use in the classroom because many young people today view living alone as somewhat of a ‘rite of passage’ into adulthood, but do not envision themselves living along in middle-age. It would be very interesting to get students’ perspectives on this topic. Some discussion questions to get to conversation going or to have them answer at home:

1. Have you ever lived alone? Do you see yourself living alone at any time in the future? What are the advantages to living alone in your opinion? What are the disadvantages?

2. How is privilege related to living alone? Who gets to live alone and who doesn’t?

3. What do you think of Klinenberg’s point that people who live alone are actually more social than people who live with families?

4. Klinenberg discusses the internet and cellphones as tools that allow people to feel connected to others even when they live alone. How often do you communicate with people through text or on social networking sites like Facebook? How do you think this compares to face-to-face interaction? Do you think the rise in digital communication is a positive or negative development? Why?

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.

In case you haven’t noticed, Sociological Images has recently added a section for instructors.  It’s filled with some great resources, so please check it out here!


172/365  I Want to See the World

With Earth Day fast approaching, we’re seeing more stories about climate change (for example, see this sighting) and other environmental issues.  While there are many ways to study our environment sociologically, courses about environmental justice are becoming more popular.  Here we share a syllabus graciously provided by David Pellow at the University of Minnesota.  The description for his course, Race, Class, and the Politics of Nature, is provided below.  You can download the syllabus here:  Race, Class, and the Politics of Nature.

The phenomenon known as environmental racism has made headlines during the last three decades, in large part because the movement for environmental justice has placed this issue on the public agenda. This course introduces students to the theoretical and historical foundations of environmental racism and environmental inequality. We will examine and interrogate both the social scientific evidence concerning these phenomena and the efforts by governments, residents, workers, and community activists to combat it. We will consider the social forces that create environmental inequalities so that we may understand their causes and consequences. We will also consider ideas and practices that may lead to (1) a more equitable social distribution of the costs and benefits of markets and (2) more ecologically sustainable forms of production and social organization. Students will be expected to master several social scientific theories and concepts related to the subject matter. In particular, we pay close attention to the ways in which the concept of race intersects with gender, class, citizenship, indigeneity, and nation in order to better understand how systems of power and inequality are constructed, reinforced, and challenged.