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 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 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?





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.

Here’s a case study that accompanys Randy Stoecker’s “Community Organizing and Social Change” in Contexts, Winter 2009.  It could be used before or after reading the article.  Click here for the pdf.

Laura Delgado faces a dilemma.  As a community organizer for a progressive advocacy group called the Center on Policy Initiatives (CPI) in San Diego, California, Laura has spent the last two years leading a campaign to win a living wage ordinance for the city of San Diego.   It has been a tough fight, but Laura believes that victory may be within sight.  A pivotal city council meeting is taking place next week.  Hundreds of living wage activists will pack the city council’s chambers, and community leaders, clergy members, and students will speak to encourage council members to vote for the ordinance.  

Laura is convinced that a low-wage worker who would benefit from a living wage must speak as well; living wage advocates need to put a human face on the issue in order to win.  Luckily, in the past few months, Laura has gotten to know Sarah Brown, an attendant for a city public restroom downtown.  Sarah has a compelling story, and Laura knows that she would do a great job speaking in front of the city council.  But for Sarah to take such a public position may entail some risk; Sarah’s employer could be upset, or even fire Sarah, if he finds out that she is lobbying for a living wage ordinance.  Should Laura encourage Sarah to speak?  

Sarah Brown is an attendant at a street-level public restroom just around the corner from the city council building.  Sarah – a grandmother with a shy smile and a gracious manner – spends almost forty hours a week there, cleaning toilets, mopping floors, restocking toilet paper, and buzzing people in and out from a tiny stall squeezed in between the men’s and women’s rooms.  Because she doesn’t make enough from her full time job to support her family, she works an additional 25 hours a week at a McDonald’s.  Both jobs pay minimum wage and provide no benefits.  Even with two jobs, it is a constant struggle for Sarah to make ends meet.  “Each month,” Sarah told Laura, “I worry that I will not be able to pay my rent or feed my grandson.  Sometimes he cries because there is not enough to eat.”

 Laura knows that, in order for CPI to win a living wage ordinance and improve the lives of thousands of city workers, including Sarah, a worker who would benefit from a living wage must speak at the city council meeting.  Half-measures, like video-taping a worker but obscuring her identity, just won’t do.  But for a worker to speak in public will entail some risk.  Laura knows that in union organizing campaigns, one out of four worker activists is fired, illegally, because they are trying to form a union.  The stakes are equally high in this case.  What should Laura do?


  1. Should Laura ask Sarah to speak at the city council meeting?  Whether you answer yes or no, how do you arrive at your conclusion?
  2. Imagine that Laura asks Sarah to speak.  Sarah responds that she wants to do so because she believes in the importance of a living wage.  But she tells Laura that she is afraid of losing her job if her employer finds out that she spoke at the meeting.  What should Laura tell her?
  3. Imagine that Laura also needs to recruit a pastor from an affluent congregation in the suburbs to speak at the meeting.  The pastor wants to do so, but is concerned that his conservative congregation will be upset about his activism; perhaps he could even lose his job.  How would your answers to questions 1 and 2 change, if at all, in this case? 
  4. Imagine that the worker Sarah needs to ask to speak happens to be undocumented.  In this case, the worker could potentially not only lose his or her job, but also be deported.  How would your answers to questions 1 and 2 change, if at all, in this case?