Photo of a health app on smartphone. Photo by Jason Howie, Flickr CC

*~* “Teach with TSP” Contest Honorable Mention, 2018 *~*

I use this in-class activity in the “Health, Medicine, & Illness” week in my Introduction to Sociology class to engage my students in critical thinking about small changes that can be made to address people’s micro experiences with health issues and inequalities.

I give each of my students a copy of “The Rise of Health-Tracking Technology,” an article from The Society Pages blog, “There’s Research on That!” 

Students are asked to read the article and then are put into groups of three to discuss the following questions:

  • How can we understand health-tracking technologies as part of medicalization?
  • What are some of the benefits of health tracking technologies?
  • What are some of the social problems associated with these technologies?
    • What are some problems these technologies are intended to help?
    • What potential problems might evolve from these technologies?

Then, students are asked to work in their groups to brainstorm ideas for how they would design their own health-tracking or health/wellness oriented app to address some of the social problems of health and illness we have learned about that week.

Student groups are then asked to present their app designs to the rest of the class, emphasizing how use of that app would address social inequalities associated with health, illness, and wellbeing.

An example of one proposed app from my student groups was the following:

An app that would address some of the health inequalities in food deserts through a GPS based system that would let users know where places to buy food are in their near vicinity. The app would be connected with store employees so that users would know when fresh produce and other fresh food items were available in the stores.

The take away discussion after this activity involves talking with the students about how small changes can make a difference in the way that people experience health inequalities in their daily lives, but that we must also be working in an ongoing way to address these inequalities at the macro level too.


Lydia Hou is an advanced graduate student in the Sociology Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago studying international students and Higher Ed diversity projects. Her work broadly focuses on race, gender, qualitative methods, critical higher education, and pedagogy.

Escape cell, Alcatraz

In the Contexts feature “No Real Release” (Winter 2009), Jason Schnittker and Michael Massoglia explore the link between incarceration and health.  Below are some questions you can use with the article.  Also, check out some online content to accompany the article!

1)     Describe the ways that incarceration is linked to poor health and inadequate health care. In contrast, how is incarceration beneficial to the health of some prisoners?

2)    This article demonstrates how the stigma of incarceration can be “contagious” and affect how the children of ex-cons are seen and see themselves. What are some other stigmas that seem to rub off on friends and family?

3)    As you learned in the article, discrimination against ex-cons is legally sanctioned. Should it be? Why or why not?


ACTIVITY: Imagine that you are a social worker in a community where many former inmates return after leaving prison. What policies might you advocate to address the health needs of your community in light of prisoner re-entry? What resources would you need? What community leaders or organization would you need to enlist for support?


Use these questions with Simon J. Williams’ Winter 2011 Contexts Feature, “Our Hard Days’ Nights.”

1.   It may be surprising to read that sociologists study sleep.  How is sleep social, and what does sociology have to offer the study of sleep?

2.  The author repeatedly refers to sleep as a “right.”  Similarly, Article 24 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserts the right to rest and leisure.  How is sleep a right?  What does this mean, and do you agree with this classification?

3.  The article discusses Modafinil and other wakefulness-promoting drugs that are already being used by the military to combat drowsiness.  Discuss the pros and cons of drugs like Modafinil.



The questions and activity below can be used with “Key Findings from 50 Years of Medical Sociology,” by Katherine J. Rosich and Janet R. Hankin (Contexts, Fall 2010).  This article could also be paired with Theda Skocpol’s “One Thing I Know” on health care reform from the Winter 2011 issue of Contexts.
  1. How do the authors portray the American health care system at the start of the 21st century?
  2. The article suggests that asking questions about definitions (like “what is illness”) enables us to explore and understand the impact of definitions.  Write your personal definition of health.  Then, examine the World Health Organization’s definition of health.  How does your definition compare?  How might different ways of defining health impact how it’s understood and treated?
  3. Activity:  Hold a debate about universal health care.  Assign students to argue for or against universal health care and assign research for the debate as homework.


Poor Dad

These questions were created to accompany “Healthy Dads, Healthy Kids” by William Marsiglio.

1)    In what ways can a father negatively affect his children’s health before birth and after birth?  Which mechanisms are biologically based and which are socially based?

2)    How can gendered expectations of masculinity affect fatherhood? Would ideas about masculinity would have to change in order to improve parenting by fathers?

3)    Make a list of both positive and negative examples of fatherhood in the popular media. Which are more abundant and why?

4)    The author suggests several policies that would help mitigate the number of fathers having a negative effect on their children’s health. Which of these policies seem most promising to you?  Why?  Can you think of any other policies to add to the list?




Men are Missing from African Family Planning by Ashley E. Frost and F. Nii-Amoo Dodoo, from the Winter 2009 issue of Contexts would work well in any class on gender or sexuality issues as well as accompanying any lesson on population/ family planning policies abroad. Use the discussion questions and/or the activity  below to incorporate this article into your class. Africa Continent Location Map

ASSIGNMENT: Outline the main reasons the authors give for the high fertility rates among African women. In a nutshell, why aren’t current planning policies working?  Using what you learned in the article as your guide, explain how gender roles and ideologies within different cultures can influence fertility rates. Compare the African example to another community that you are familiar with.

ACTIVITY: Imagine that you are a public health official working with the U.N. on overpopulation in Africa. Given what you learned from this article, create a plan for a program that would be more successful in reducing fertility rates among women in Africa.


The article  “The Joys of Parenthood, Reconsidered” by Robin W. Simon from the Spring 2008 issue of Contexts would work great in a Sociology of Families or Introduction to Sociology course. In this article, Simon presents research that show parents in the United States experience depression and emotional distress more often than people who do not have children. Use the questions below to start a discussion on this article in class or as a guide for the reading:

1)    Do you agree with the author that our society values having children so much that childless adults are either pitied or considered selfish? If so, why do you think this cultural belief is so strong? If not, why not?

2)    Do you think having children will make/makes your life complete? How have the cultural beliefs about parenthood described in this article affected your personal desire (or lack thereof) for children?

3)    Brainstorm about why these ideas about parenthood persist even if they are not statistically “true”? Who might have a vested interest in maintaining these beliefs?

Drug questions

Today, it is not uncommon for children to regularly take prescription medicine.  To some, this is normal.  Others question what has been deemed a disorder and corresponding treatment.  “The Prescription of a New Generation” (Contexts, Spring 2008) takes a closer look at these and related issues.  Here are some questions to help students think about normalcy, disorders, and medicine today.

1)    Discuss how medical “breakthroughs” like the anti-depressants described in this article or the introduction of a drug like Latisse (which is supposed to treat short eyelashes) are changing ideas of normalcy and self-identity. Is there a stigma attached to either taking such medications or seeking alternative treatments?

2)    The article says that we spend more time and effort getting people onto medications than off of them. What social functions do medications serve?

3)    Near the end of the article, a student questions whether ADD and ADHD are actual problems or normal responses to the increasing—and sometimes overwhelming—demands of work and school. What do you think?

ACTIVITY: Find examples online or in the mainstream media where drugs or medications are being advertised. How do these ads explain and promote their products? To what extent do you think pharmaceutical companies help define “normal” behaviors and states?

Questions and activities like these will be featured in the upcoming Contexts Reader!

The following case study was written by Wen Fan.  Wen is pursuing her Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Minnesota and wrote the case study to accompany “Autism, Through a Social Lens” by Stephen Poulson (Contexts, Spring 2009).

The purpose of this case study is to provide you with an opportunity to examine how social inequality manifests itself in the diagnosis and treatment of autism.

Read the following case study and answer the questions.  Be prepared to talk about your answers in small groups.

Robin is the son of Kathleen, a Filipino immigrant, and Tom, an immigrant from Jordan. Since Robin was three years old, his mother Kathleen had been aware of his difficulties. He was not talking, making eye contact or showing interest in other children. However, many of Tom’s Jordanian family members told her, “He’s fine. Boys develop slower than girls.” Kathleen and her Filipino family knew something was wrong, but the word for autism doesn’t even exist in either of the two cultures. Despite several visits to professionals to express her concerns, diagnosis of autism was not suggested as an explanation of Robin’s difficulties (perhaps due to Kathleen’s poor English).

During Robin’s time in Kindergarten, Kathleen was frequently called in by teachers who complained about his anti-social behavior. The teachers said that he needed to be taught appropriate social skills, but Kathleen already devoted hours teaching Robin how to share and to recognize the feelings of others. All of these efforts failed, though. At primary school, reports from teachers continued to be negative. He was described as inattentive, lazy, defiant and insolent.

Finally, when Robin was nine, a psychiatrist diagnosed him as autistic.  Kathleen and Tom were relieved at first as the blame was lifted from both their son and themselves. They could now start to make sense of Robin’s problems and devise solutions.  However, the diagnosis did not solve all of the problems coming from Tom’s family.  Their culture did not recognize diseases like autism, and special education was highly stigmatized.

Pragmatically, Kathleen and Tom faced an even bigger challenge.  According to the psychiatrist, Robin would need at least 25 hours of direct contact per week with a trained therapist for a minimum of two years. However, autism is not covered by most health insurance providers; and given the high costs of the intervention programs, many schools do not provide therapy for autistic children. In fact, the school where Robin studied simply refused to identify Robin as autistic because officials regarded the cost of providing services as too expensive.  As a result, the family had to move to another school district that had established autism programs. However, tuition that included his 25-hour-per-week therapy cost $88,000 per academic year, far beyond what the family could afford.  Luckily, Filipinos have a culture of sacrificing individual desires for the benefit of the family. Therefore, Kathleen and Tom have received much financial support from Kathleen’s extended family. Nevertheless, Kathleen finally made a tough decision in order to better care for Robin–quit her job.


  1. Robin was diagnosed with autism relatively late and thus missed the most effective early interventions. What contributed to this late diagnosis?
  2. How do cultural traditions, values and beliefs affect peoples’ attitudes toward autism? Would there be any difference if this happened in your family?
  3. To some extent, Robin is lucky because he can afford the cost for the therapy. According to a Harvard School of Public Health study published in 2007, it typically costs $3.2 million to raise an autistic child into adulthood, compared with $290,000 to raise a neurotypical child. How would this affect people’s access to treatment, and what should our society do to address this issue?
  4. In this story, who is responsible for the task of taking care of Robin? If you were Kathleen or Tom, would you make the same decision? Why or why not?