intro again

OK, fast question. Are there key ideas or concepts that are absolutely essential that people be taught in an intro sociology class or you would think the proffie wasn’t doing her job? I’ve already reviewed syllabi and can tell that folks teach radically different courses in intro — we do not have a standardized course like, say, first year calculus. Does this mean I have a completely free rein to teach any of the parts of sociology that interest me? Or are there key ideas that people really should know when they leave. I’m thinking of this in an abstract level. My idea is to hit on the essential concepts/themes while delving in some depth into a subset of sociological research problems taken from a few different areas.

For sure, I think we’ve got to do “social structure constrains individual action.” And “a lot of what we think is just natural is really socially constructed.” And “Data can reflect on the truth or falsehood of a lot of claims about social life.” And some basic information patterns of social inequality and how they are maintained.

Other essentials that you’d nominate?

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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

13 thoughts on “intro again”

  1. My favorite idea, and what I think of as sociology’s basic insight is the flip side of what you point out: constraints can be enabling. It is not that social rules simply limit. They are a basic condition for social action. The freedom to act comes from within constraints; it is not the absence of constraints.

    The examples I use are relationships. They are patterned sets of interactions that constrain you in some way. You have to maintain friendships, romance, family, etc. You are constrained by all these people. If you don’t meet your obligations, you can easily lose them. Yet it is often through these relationships that we develop our selves. Constraining relations often help make us who we are. In the absence of them, we often feel lost.


    1. As Shakha says, “Constraining relations often help make us who we are.”
      I think undergraduates are likely to be well aware of institutional constraints, but than an intro class should also cover the idea that other people make us human. I.e. there is no self without socialization. A classic and very effective article for teaching this to undergrad is “Extreme Social Isolation of a Child” by Kingsley Davis in AJS 45, 4 from 1940. See also the poignant followup “Final Note on a Case of Extreme Isolation” 52, 5 from 1947.
      And don’t forget the Milgram experiment video for movie day!


  2. As practice, you more or less can teach anything. But, morally, I’d hope that an intro course touches on the following issues as core sociological ideas:

    – why do we have inequality?
    – what is culture? does it matter?
    – What is social strcutre and where does it come from?
    – what is the relationship between the individual and the community?
    – how many people do we have? is more people a good or bad thing?

    These, in broad terms, are the key topics of sociology. An alternative view in an intro course that I find equally defensible is a sort of overview of social theories. what is the rational choice view of society? what is the marxist view of society? Etc. And then you’d flesh out each case with examples. Keep the jargon down and it works.


  3. I don’t think intro has to mean “overview of the field” I think it can mean “just the tip of the iceberg.”

    I think you can have a good intro class that handles only one or two of the things mentioned so far. The most important thing for intro is finding at least one thing that each student can connect to their lives–that’s really what keeps them coming back for more.

    In my opinion, learning one central concept really well is probably more valuable than having just a basic idea of all the key theories and theorists. Having a book or novel , and a film, and a project that all come back to that one concept (culture or inequality, or structure ) can be just as valuable as covering a whole textbook.


  4. I may be stating the obvious, but I would add the sociological imagination to the previous suggestions. I taught Intro last semester for the first time, and used Dalton Conley’s text (and strongly recommend it). The key theme throughout is “making the familiar strange.” The students really responded to that, and several students told me they looked at everything differently because of the class. Of course, the social construction of reality is a big part of that.

    In terms of substantive topics, the week on education and inequality seemed to especially resonate with them. I think they could relate to it better than some other forms of inequality that we discussed (e.g., gender in the workplace, racial segregation, etc.).


  5. Dave: Ed soc isn’t my field, can you say what readings you used?

    Shamus: I agree with your point philosophically but am not up to speed on relevant sociological writing on the point. Again, could you identify a couple of readings that are useful for making the point?

    Others: thanks for the thoughts. Keep ’em coming if you have more.


    1. I used Conley’s chapter on education, which does a nice job of covering inequalities in schooling: e.g., Kozol, Lareau, race and class gaps, tracking, stereotype threat, etc. I also assigned a Kozol interview from when “Shame of the Nation” was published. We watched some of the Moyers/Kozol movie (dated, but still effective), so the interview was a nice way to bring them up to date on that work.

      In my upper-division inequality and race courses, I often assign excerpts from Kozol’s work, along with more sociological sources, and students always react strong to them (in a good way).


    2. I think there are lots of ways to approach this. You could go old school. Like teaching Durkheim’s Suicide (constraints need to exist — they can’t be too constraining or too absent). You could also go super old school and teach Hobbes. You could teach chapter 13 (book 1) of Leviathan. It’s short, and basically has the same idea. Hobbes argues that without constraints there is nothing which we would recognize as humanity.

      You could teach this through Goffman — where roles make meaningful interaction possible.

      You could do it through Mead — using the “me” and the “I” to talk about patterned expectations for action allow for successful interactions (I act in ways that assume a kind of response from you).

      You could also do it by looking at the new institutionalism literature.

      Or were you thinking more empirical literature?


  6. You know what’s interesting – when I do job interview type stuff, I notice that some departments focus very much on the “perspectives model” – functionalism, conflict theory, and SI.

    I found this fascinating, because while obviously familiar with them, this was not how I was taught intro soc way-hay-hay back when. My intro class (that I took, not taught) was an institution-a-week course, with the ultimate point that institutions intersect with each other and individuals. For what it’s worth, I think it served me well enough.

    I’m overlapping with everything others are saying, but I found in the 100-level class I teach that it was worthwhile to discuss the different ways sociologists think about power.


  7. My favorite idea, and what I think of as sociology’s basic insight is the flip side of what you point out: constraints can be enabling. It is not that social rules simply limit. They are a basic condition for social action. The freedom to act comes from within constraints; it is not the absence of constraints.

    Harrison White has a characteristically evocative line on this somewhere. Something like, “Better a twig of genuine freedom wrung from a tree of constraint than tinsel forest of artificial freedom”.


  8. I had a happy moment as I read the post, thought “structure enables as well as constrains,” and then saw that as Comment #1.

    My typical cite for that idea is Giddens 1984, so probably not exactly what you’re looking for.

    But relationships can be a good illustration: social structure serves up an often homogamous “dating & mating marketplace” to young people.


  9. I agree with just about everything that’s been said here. But I always try to stress the Durkheimian idea of social fact – facts that are not reducible to individual facts (e.g., the stability of rates of behavior, like suicide). Social facts are created by people, but once established they take on a life of their own; they are “ways of thinking, feeling, and acting” that are external to the individual, even though we usually think of thought, feeling, and behavior as being internal to the individual. Social facts affect the individual, but the individual has little power to change social facts. Every time I introduce a new concept – like ones Fabio mentioned (culture, structure, stratification, demography, etc) I remind students of how these are social facts.


  10. There is a great first day exercise in teaching sociology that I have used on multiple occasions in Intro. You ask students to introduce themselves with no guidance beyond that. Students inevitably follow the “rules” of what was said before them. The article gives tips on how to guide the discussion about social norms (institutionalization of introductions, structure, etc). I haven’t specifically had this discussion but I think this would be a great way to broach the subject of the enabling and disabling properties of the constraints of social structure. I find myself returning to this first day exercise again and again throughout the course. Aside from everything else, it’s a great group-building moment.


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