inequality

Photo of a sign that says, “polling place” in three languages. Photo by Andrew Mager, Flickr CC

With so many concerns about voter suppression in the 2018 midterm elections, now is an excellent time to highlight the important role that social science can play in public debate and in our classrooms. Today’s suggestion for Teaching with TSP is a group exercise using King and Roscigno’s special feature on the 50th anniversary of the voting rights act that can be done during class followed by a discussion with the whole class. I used this exercise in my lower division Race & Ethnicity class, but it could easily be used in other lower division classes like Introduction to Sociology or Social Problems, or in an upper division Political Sociology class with some additions and modifications (which I’ll explain below). This exercise is ideal for a course in a general education curriculum that meets a social sciences requirement where instructors are often tasked with teaching students how to assess different kinds of information, evaluate evidence, and understand biases. I like this exercise because it leaves room for students with differing levels of ability, and because it directly and constructively engages students who hold the belief that everything taught in Race & Ethnicity or other sociology classes is “biased” or based on “differing opinions” without attacking them.

Materials:

You bring:

  • Printed copies of the article (1-4 copies per group)
  • Whiteboard and a bunch of markers

Students bring:

  • A copy of the book or other text you have recently read in your class
  • Pen and paper

Instructions

  1. Place the students in groups of 4-5 and give each group at least one copy of the article. Make a section on your white board for each of the different terms: 1) an opinion, 2) an empirical fact, and 3) a social scientific claim. Ask students to read through the entire article and, as they go, to identify two of each: an opinion, a fact, and a claim. They will need to write each of these on the board as they find them. You may want to make the rule that no repeats are allowed since that sometimes helps people work a little more quickly in groups (but this may not work if you have a larger class and a lot of groups).
  2. As students fill the board and work through the exercise you can choose to either let incorrect answers stand or you can go talk to the groups and ask them to fix those answers in the moment, depending on the dynamic and size of your class.
  3. Students are likely to come up with good questions about the difference between these three terms for you and each other while they work through the exercise, keeping in mind that part of what may be new here for college students is the addition of the “social scientific claim.” While K-12 does teach a related skill, it tends to focus on fact vs. opinion, which leaves evidence-based arguments in a confusing gray area for many new college students. Furthermore, many of us know that observable empirical facts in sociology are often nonetheless controversial. This exercise opens up that fact for conversation directly from an unexpected angle.
  4. Groups that finish early complete the same exercise using the most recent course reading, until all groups have at least finished the main exercise.
  5. Gently correct or clarify anything from the answers on the board. Transition from small group activity to large group discussion by asking “What do you notice when you look at the answers on the board? Does anything jump out at you? Anything surprise you? Confuse you?” This gives students a moment to reflect on what all the groups did. By asking students to choose the direction, you allow them to take ownership over the activity and lead the discussion in a direction that’s interesting to them, and the result is a more engaged, productive discussion that will allow students to tell you what they know and don’t know about the topic and what they want to know more about. More ideas for discussion are below, along with possible modifications to the exercise.

Discussion Guide

  • Is voter fraud a problem? (Establish that given this article and exercise the students understand that it is not a problem.) Why do you think so many people think it IS a problem? Did you think it was (more of) a problem before today?
  • Explore students’ reactions to why voter ID and other voting access laws are being changed, especially since voter fraud isn’t a problem. Do they agree with the authors? Are they unsure of the reasons? Can they develop their own sociological hypotheses?
  • Discuss the history of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Movement. What did students learn that was new? Do they have questions or reactions? Is there a reason these changes are happening now?
  • What is the role of social science and sociology in politics?

Possible Modifications

  • Students could be asked to update this piece or to make it local by researching the requirements to register and to vote in their own state.
  • If you are in a state with voter ID legislation, students could research who introduced and supported this legislation, what challenges have occurred to it, and the judicial opinions that have been issued.
  • Either of these could be done as part of a class activity or as a homework assignment.

Additional TSP Reading on Voter Suppression

How Voter Suppression Shapes Election Outcomes

Strict Voter Identification Laws Advantage Whites—And Skew American Democracy to the Right

Dr. Meghan Krausch studies race, gender, disability, and other forms of marginalization throughout the Americas and in particular how grassroots communities have developed ways to resist their own marginalization. Read more of Meg’s writing at The Rebel Professor or get in touch directly at meghan.krausch@gmail.com.

20111009-OWS-Azcuy-10

In one of the latest episodes of Office Hours, TSP’s Sarah Shannon speaks with Stanford University Sociology Professor David Grusky about the social and economic effects of the recession.  This entire podcast could be assigned to students, though you could also considering assigning part of it (the first 20 minutes, for example).

Grusky and Shannon cover many topics in this 50-minute conversation, so there are many avenues for discussion.  Here are a few basic questions that cover some of the main points.

1)   How does the most recent recession differ from past recessions?  In other words, what makes it a “great” recession?

2)   How does the recession affect inequality in the United States?

3)   What are some of the responses to the recession, and how do they differ from responses to the Great Depression?

4)   Why does Grusky see a danger in the focus on tax-based solutions to the current economic problems?

5)   Grusky and Shannon speak specifically about college students several times throughout the podcast?  How is the recession impacting students?  Why is education an important part of this discussion?

Near the end of the podcast, Grusky mentions a website on recession trends that will be launching soon.  Stay tuned to learn more about that website and how it can be used in the classroom!

Featured on The Society Pages last week was an edited interview with Annette Lareau conducted last year by Jack Lam (sociology graduate student at Minnesota) and I on her updated edition of her famous book Unequal Childhoods (University of California Press).

You can listen to and download the entire interview from Office Hours.

We highly recommend using this book in your classes: check out our post on a possible class activity to tie in with the book.

Even if you don’t assign the whole book, we recommend referencing her updated findings. Lareau’s important arguments are essential to any discussion on childhood, education, and class.


This blog post, written by Lyndi Hewitt, originally appeared on the Mobilizing Ideas blog and appears here with the author and institute’s permission. We liked it so much we just had to share! 

 

For those of us prescient enough (wink) to plan a social movements course for this semester, it’s been quite a ride.  I’ve been teaching a first year seminar on global justice movements and, like many other instructors, altered my carefully planned syllabus in response to the unexpected wave of activism that emerged before our very eyes.

As the students in the course simultaneously processed core social movements scholarship and news coverage of the Occupy Wall Street protests, I was particularly struck by the fact that many students had very specific and often inaccurate ideas about who the protesters were (and what it cost them to be there) even after extensive, theoretically informed class discussion and news analysis.  So I decided to invite the students to join me for a visit to Zuccotti Park.  Newly equipped with social movements concepts, along with requisite iPhones and video cameras, the students and I ventured into the park on a chilly Saturday evening in early November.  We observed a general assembly, discussed the various issues and frames represented among the signs, and interviewed protesters about their views.  Despite the fact that most of the students were initially skeptical of Occupy Wall Street, they exhibited both intellectual curiosity and great respect for the protesters.  One especially enthusiastic student prepared a short video documenting the protesters’ responses to his questions (which I share with his permission):

The two gentlemen featured prominently, both veterans, had a significant impact on the students. Their remarks around 5:50 encapsulate the disruption of students’ pre-existing assumptions: “I’m tremendously excited by what I see here. These people are extremely sophisticated people. They’re very intelligent people. They’re not bums. Don’t believe the media that we have nothing better to do, okay. We would like to be productive members of society. We were at one time and we would like to be again. We have a lot to contribute.”

Although we’d been discussing the Occupy Wall Street protests and applying social movement theories in the classroom for weeks, the experience of being in the park, seeing the encampment alongside the police, and talking with protesters proved to be a far richer learning opportunity for students. It blew the students’ minds that OWS protesters could be older, hard working, and patriotic; moreover, hearing movement grievances articulated face-to-face catalyzed a depth of understanding that wasn’t achievable simply through reading and watching video clips about those same grievances. Interestingly, our debriefing after the field trip revealed that over half the students had changed their opinions of the protesters as well as the legitimacy of the movement as a whole (all, it turned out, from an unfavorable to a more favorable opinion).

Seeing the OWS protesters through the eyes of my students reminded me how powerful a teacher experience is, and that more time spent in the midst of the action would be valuable for most of us.

A group of sociologists recently revisited the controversial 1965 Moynihan Report.  Your students can read about it in the Fall 2009 Contexts feature “The Moynihan Report, A Retrospective” by Kate Ledger.  Below are some questions and an activity you can use in the classroom.

 

1) The Moynihan Report is available online at http://www.dol.gov/oasam/programs/history/webid-meynihan.htm. Read the introduction and describe how it compares with the image you had after reading the Contexts article. Which analysis do you find more compelling and/or enlightening?

 

2) According to this article, a number of sociologists think Moynihan would have had different ideas about black families had he studied class instead of race. Why would this be true?

 

3) When the Moynihan Report was leaked to the press 45 years ago, there was an outcry and social science about family, race, and inequality started to happen “under the radar.”  How can the media help or hinder social science research?

 

Activity: Use www.eurekalert.com or a comparable source to find a press release on a social scientific study that sounds interesting. Read the press release and the original article (your school’s library website will help you find the original) and compare them. Does the press release do the article justice? What parts of the original research seem overlooked? Do any seem overhyped?

 

 

 

Money!

Connecting students’ lives and previous experiences to lessons is always a great way to capture attention.  “The Sociology of Bubbles” by Bruce G. Carruthers (Contexts, Summer 2009) explains the sociology of the economic meltdown, a topic that will surely be of interest to many students.

Here are some potential questions that you could use with article:

1)    Do you have any experience with the finance system in the U.S. (e.g., the stock market, school loans)? Has your experience been positive or negative?  If you have no experience, how do you think you will in the future?

2)    Has the economic recession changed your views of the financial system in this country? What consequences of the recession have you seen in your own life?

3)    Why do you think so many people invest in the stock market or borrow from banks when the risks are so high? What do you think this says about our culture?

4)    The author writes that economic inequality in this country is at levels not seen since the Great Depression. Based on what you learned from this article and your own knowledge, what are the social repercussions of such high economic inequality?

 

 

 

Torn & Cut One Dollar Note Floating Away in Small $ Pieces

Taxes are a controversial, interesting issue to cover in class that allows you to link sociology to current events.  Almost everyone has an opinion, but people know surprisingly little about taxation in the United States.  “Tax Myths” by Lane Kenworthy examines many commonly-held views of taxes and explains that a number of things citizens and policymakers think they know about taxes are wrong.

Here are some questions that could be used with the article:

1) What are the tax myths covered in the article?

2)    Choose one tax myth that particularly surprised you. Why do you think that you, and many other Americans, believed it?

3)    Kenworthy explains that taxes don’t directly reduce inequality.  How might taxes indirectly affect levels of inequality?

 
ACTIVITY: Chart a day in your life and show where taxes affect your daily routine. For example, your taxes help pay to enforce environmental regulations that protect your drinking water.

**You could also use this article to discuss current events in Wisconsin as well as with the national budget.**

 

We recommend using this intriguing article about an impoverished shantytown in Buenos Aires that has been horribly polluted by a Shell oil refinery: “Amidst Garbage and Poison: An Essay on Polluted Peoples and Places” by Javier Auyero and Debora Swistun (Contexts Spring 2007)

To discover how the children of this town feel about living in such a place, the authors give children disposable cameras with the instruction of photographing places and things they consider ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in the town. The article also poses the question of what responsibility corporations have to the people whose towns they pollute or destroy.

This article would work well in a lesson on inequality, environmental racism, corporate ethics, capitalism or methodologies. Use the questions and/or the activity below to get a discussion started on this topic:   hell oil

1)    How did it make you feel to learn about how the people in Flammable live? What do you think could be done to improve their situation?

2)    Describe how capitalism in the U.S. affects people in Flammable. Do you think that Shell-Capsa has a responsibility to the people of Flammable? Why or why not?

3)    Research and define the terms “environmental justice” and “environmental racism.” How do they relate to the case of Flammable?

ACTIVITY: Take three photographs of sites in your neighborhood or city that you think exemplify environmental inequality and share them with the class. Why did you choose these sites and what do you think they say about your city?

Full Disk Image of Earth Captured Feb. 7, 2011
Lane Kenworthy’s article “Is Equality Feasible?” (Contexts, Summer 2007) is a great article to get students thinking about inequality in society.  Below are some questions that you can use with the article.

1)    What is the Gini coefficient and how can it be used to influence social policy?

2)    Summarize the argument that inequality contributes to affluence in a given country. What is the equality/jobs trade-off?

3)    The author talks about the non-pay benefits of employment. Can these benefits be accomplished in other ways? What are some possible consequences of not having access to these benefits (both for individuals and society)?

4)    Beyond poverty, how does unemployment affect societies?

5) Is equality feasible?

Here is a learning activity that can be used with The Scarcity Fallacy, by Stephen J. Scanlan, J. Craig Jenkins, and Lindsey Petersen (Contexts, Winter 2010).  Click on the links to obtain a pdf of the learning activity or to read “The Scarcity Fallacy” online through Contexts.

1. How many people live on less than $2 a day?

a. 2.5 billion
b. 2.7 billion
c. 3 billion
d. 3.2 billion

2. What percentage of the people who live in extreme poverty are women?

a. 50
b. 60
c. 70
d. 80

3. Someone dies from starvation every ______ seconds.

4. Approximately how many people do not have access to safe drinking water?

a. 100 million
b. 500 million
c. 750 million
d. 1 billion

5. How many people are hungry every day?

a. 200 million
b. 600 million
c. 800 million
d. 900 million

6. _________people lack access to basic healthcare.

7. How many children die from malnutrition before their 5th birthday every year?

a. 3 million
b. 4 million
c. 5 million
d. 6 million

8. A woman dies in pregnancy or childbirth every _______

a. 1 minute
b. 2 minutes
c. 3 minutes
d. 4 minutes

9. How many people die from malaria each year? _________

10. Approximately _______ people are homeless.

a. 50 million
b. 75 million
c. 100 million
d. 125 million

Answer Key:

1. B
2. C
3. 3.6
4. D
5. C
6. 1.3 billion
7. D
8. A
9. 3 million
10. C

All answers can be found at the UN Millenium Project website.  See the websites of the following organizations for more information: UN Development Program, World Bank, UNIFEM, Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.