I’m scheduled to teach intro to sociology next term for the first time in 30 years. It will be a small (15-20 students)  honors section (targeting freshmen), so I’m thinking of centering the course around sociology’s most important ideas (rather than the “little bit of everything” approach) and the  reading on 4-6 good books interspersed with a relatively small number of key articles. Do Scatterplotters have nominations for (1) big ideas, (2) good books for motivated but young undergraduates, (3) good articles ditto? Drop them in the comments, please.

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I'm a sociology professor but not only a sociology professor. I keep my name out of this blog because I don't want my name associated with it in a Google search. Although I never write anything in a public forum like a blog that I'd be ashamed to have associated with my name (and you shouldn't either), it is illegal for me to use my position as a public employee to advance my religious or political views, and the pseudonym helps to preserve the distinction between my public and private identities. The pseudonym also helps to protect the people I may write about in describing public or semi-public events I've been involved with. You can read about my academic work on my academic blog --Pam Oliver

19 thoughts on “intro”

  1. My intro course is currently ginormous and by necessity skips stones across the discipline, but back in the old days when I was at a liberal arts college, my intro course was structured as a seminar, and used the “big ideas considered deeply” approach. Unfortunately, this means my suggestions are out of date, but I’ll include a few.

    I focused in large part on inequality, and I found the Claude Fischer, et al. book, Inequality by Design, to be a very compact and straightforward discussion of many different social processes that reproduce inequality. Its hook of responding to the Bell Curve‘s argument that IQ determines inequality was very interesting to students.

    Connecting inequality to religion, politics and sexuality, I used Arlene Stein’s book, The Stranger Next Door. It’s very accessible and makes a convincing case that struggles over gay rights initiatives in a small town were motivated by economic insecurity.

    When the course turned to gender, the students loved to hate Chrys Ingraham’s book, White Weddings, which upset their most cherished ideas of barbie-doll weddings, big diamond rings, and idealized heterosexuality by simply shining a light on the topic.

    Even in my large class, I find room to assign the recent McPherson, Lovin & Brashears article on social isolation. If I had more time, I would include the Fischer critique and their response to it as well. It’s a great way to talk about social structure, networks, etc., in a very personalized way.

    If I were going to teach a small intro class today, I would think about using the Suzanne Bianchi, et al. book, Changing Rhythm of American Family Life, Devah Pager’s book, Marked, and Jessica Field’s book, Risky Lessons.

    Oh, and I have found F. James Davis’s book on the social construction of race, Who Is Black?, to be just wonderful, but it was out of print even back when I tried to use it in 2003. I wish they would reprint it, perhaps with an update.


  2. My course isn’t quite like what you outline. But my syllabus is here. I spend five weeks reading “greatest hits” articles from five areas of sociology (culture, strat, demography, political, and social psych). And then I read five books from each of these areas.

    One thing I do is to make sure I read things that are not just about the US. So recently I taught a book about Japan, and one about Rwanda. Good luck! Sounds exciting.


  3. Depending on whether or not your university offers theory separately, I’ve always found questions of social order to be very compelling.


  4. I’ve never taught anything as small as what you’re contemplating, but my approach to intro is similar in that I try to teach real sociology (not textbook pap) and I vary the material year to year. I used to do more theory per se before I realized that they’d get their fill in the bona fide theory class. Syllabi from my past intro classes are at

    I’ve used Conley’s Being Black, Living in the Red for every intro class thus far, but heard a substantial enough critique of it from a colleague who ought to know that I will re-evaluate before assigning it again. It’s the only book that’s been on every one of my intro syllabi. Others that have worked out well:

    – Leidner, Fast Food, Fast Talk
    – Bosk, Forgive and Remember, particularly using the addendum to the second edition as a teaching point
    – Klinenberg, Heat Wave,
    – Lareau, Unequal Childhoods


      1. I do know that the expert who offered the critique reads Scatterplot, so if s/he is so inclined, a fuller version of this would be helpful, I think.

        As I understand it, the concern is with the very small subgroups that end up carrying a lot of weight in the book. For example, from Table A1.1: 11.1% black respondents of a total N of 1,285= about 142 black respondents. Controlling for income and education in order to isolate the effects of wealth when these are already highly correlated measures puts a lot of substantive weight on a very few black families.


  5. I’ve taught that approach several times. Freedom Summer always worked well in that context as did Second Shift. Those are written at about the right level for sharp first year students as well. A lot of people who’ve used that approach here have used Declining Significance of Race, which I tried once and was a little tougher sledding, but still eventually got some good thinking going. I guess all these might be a little dated, but I think they get you into the big ideas well and do a good job of challenging accepted ways of looking at the world.


  6. A readable and recent book that will interest students, as it’s about schooling:
    _The American Dream and the Power of Wealth: Choosing Schools and Inheriting Inequality in the Land of Opportunity_ by Heather Beth Johnson.

    The big idea: the meritocratic ideal, vs. the educational system as a way for inequalities to pass to the next generation. Good class discussion starter.


  7. Shapiro’s THE HIDDEN COST OF BEING AFRICAN AMERICAN is a very effective intro text. Highly readable, and has lead to a lot of discussion in my experience.

    Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo’s DOMESTICA is also extremely effective, but that might be partially attributed to many of my students being from southern California.

    I taught C.J. Pascoe’s DUDE, YOU’RE A FAG in an intro class this summer, and it was a surprisingly and profoundly informative teaching — and I hope learning — experience. While I’ve taught a fair amount about sexuality in the past, it’s always been somewhat of an abstract discussion about social construction, norms, policing, etc. While students can grasp and get something out of Gayle Rubin and the wheel of sexuality pretty easily on a slide w/out assigning the article (the Molly Ivin’s clip about the Texas Dildo Wars on Youtube is a nice companion), I unexpectedly stumbled into a hornets nest with Pascoe’s book because it directly confronted many of the students’ own high school experiences, uses of language,
    and discomfort in digging deeper into the intersections of masculinity, sexuality and patriarchy. I essentially ended up with a room full of 18 year olds who were trying to convince me that “fag” and “gay” just mean “stupid” and that I was hopelessly out of touch with the culture (I’m a 30 year old male who played football all through high school, and certainly not unaware of the “harmless” or “ironic” uses of the words). Two days on the syllabus turned into two weeks, and it was something that we had to constantly revisit throughout the quarter. After a week we got them to a “well, I OBVIOUSLY wouldn’t use it IN FRONT of a gay person, but it’s still not a big deal” stance (how one is able to mark sexual preference in general social interaction I’m still not too sure of, although “Gaydar, bro!” was a response). In the end, and largely with the help of the women in the course, it ended up being a pretty profound teachable moment, largely because of the setting of Pascoe’s work and it’s focus on interpersonal exchange, both of which are highly relevant to the lives of many if not most college freshmen.

    Great question!


  8. A short flashback, with lots of naïveté but some truth still:

    I remember my own frustration when I read my Soc 101 syllabus (in France, in 2002) and realised there was nothing on prisons and incarceration. My first thought was: “yet another class that is going to teach us lots about either very big or very small groups, while missing the fact that 50,000+ people (incl. a large proportion of schizoids and other mentally ill detainees) rot in something like 200 prisons”.

    The course did express that bias, with its large discussion of eventually vacuous questions (have we entered a post-modern era, yadda yadda yadda) and inexistent discussion of a mass phenomenon that has profoundly defined societies through time, and especially Western societies that have opted for mass imprisonment since the 1970s (concomitantly to the Silent Revolution).


  9. An excellent list so far, with a focus mostly on power, inequality and stratification. How about one reading on technology or science, vital parts of social life? Claude Fischer’s “America Calling: A Social History of the Telephone to 1940” could get students thinking critically about the phones, computers, TVs and other technologies that they use every day. Or, Steven Epstein’s “Impure Science: AIDS, activism, and the politics of knowledge” would let you cover science and sexuality in one text.


  10. I’d say the new book “Connected” by Christakis and Fowler is a must read for undergrads. They’ll be genuinely fascinated by the particular substantive phenomena, and it exposes them to the BIG idea of networks.


  11. This is an excellent discussion, and love the ideas.

    I did a class like that at Ohio State about 15 years ago, for 2 years.
    So my suggestions are WAY out of date…

    But i used Seymour Martin Lipset’s Continental Divide, cuase it exposed students a comparative approach. the book compares the US and Canada
    And since he talks about crime, race, immigration, politics, culture and the like, it DOES give the students a general overview of a lot of sociology. Without being a boring textbook. And he uses a lot of surveys, which is good to introduce. and critique.

    And then we read Robert Belah’s Habits of the Heart (allowing me to discuss religion, individualism, and te like) and Preparing for Power, about elite boarding schools (allowing me to talk about Goffman, ethnography, pluralist versus elite theory, Mills and the sociology of education).

    And i used Erich Fromm’s Escape from Freedom, which allowed me to talk about theory: Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Simmel and Freud.
    with a book that is all too relevant, i am afraid..
    and good students love Escape from Freedom, although the weaker students struggle a bit..

    A little old fashioned,this approach. A lots missing..
    So if i were to do this again, I would modify things..
    But this is what I did, in the past…

    Neil McLaughlin


  12. I’ll second Stein’s The Stranger Next Door. I used it in a freshman class with great success and it cross-cuts so many interesting sociological ideas. Students also seem to really enjoy Lareau’s ideas, so I am going to try to incorporate Unequal Childhoods inthe future.


  13. I’ve had great success with:
    Heat Wave
    In Search of Respect
    The Second Shift (still very relevant and engaging)
    This semester I’m using Flammable and Bourgois’ new book (Righteous Dopefiend), which is phenomenal.


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