Instructor's Manual for Unit I, The Sociological Perspective
Prepared by Caroline Persell May 2008
This unit introduces students to the subject matter of sociology (the study of social behavior in all forms), the perspective sociologists take on that subject, several important sociological concepts (social interaction, social structure, and social change), how sociology emerged, and the place of theory in sociology. Virtually all major textbooks in sociology contain an introductory chapter that discusses some or all of these major themes. If you haven't already read it, take a look at the first section of the American Sociological Association Task Force's Curriculum for a College Level Introduction to Sociology course.
One of the most important goals is to help students understand that they are studying social behavior rather than individual behavior. Several useful class exercises help students to recognize the difference between sociological and individualistic (or non-sociological) explanations for human behaviors. One, used by David Adams, involves asking students why they think people commit suicide. After listing and discussing some of their ideas, instructors can present suicide data by state (click on 2005 Official Data and scroll down to the state levels of data) and ask students to explain differences in the rates of suicide by state. A second powerful example of social rather than individual explanations is Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Study. Students can read an excerpt from Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, and see photos, video clips, and discussion of the study on the web, or instructors can show the film, Quiet Rage in class. Research exists that discusses how these resources have been used and studied in a focus group at one university.
Sociology differs from other social sciences in the way it examines all aspects of the social world, from relationships between individuals, to groups, organizations, and large institutions like the family, religion, the economy, nation states, education, science, sports, the arts, and all other aspects of social life. In doing this, it seeks to promote what C. Wright Mills called “the sociological imagination.” Chad Hanson discusses how to use depression era photos to help students think about how social contexts influence individuals (Teaching Sociology, April 2002).
Part of the sociological perspective involves helping students to think critically and reflectively about the social world. Barbara Schneider, Venessa A. Keesler, and Baranda J. Fermin have evaluated the curriculum developed by the ASA Task Force in an Introduction to Sociology course (Teaching Sociology, October 2008).
Like other social sciences, sociology is empirically based, that is, it tests ideas about the social world with data. Students can begin to explore data by examining census data, either on their own home towns or on the town where their school is. There is a sample answer to this exercise that students and instructors may read to see how students might write up their research.
Instructors may want to help students to understand the difference between sample empirical (i.e., data-based) statements and normative statements that contain value judgments.
A central sociological concept is the idea of social structure. One way this might be conveyed is by analogy to a needlepoint.
The emergence of sociology is discussed briefly in this website and is usually considered in introductory sociology textbooks.
Along with social research, a central feature of sociology is theory, that is, ideas indicating what factors may influence a social outcome or how such influences might operate. The nature of theory as a set of organizing and simplifying ideas may be seen as analogous to assembling a puzzle. Kathe Lowney has an entire exercise where students assemble puzzles in class, in McKinney, Beck, and Heyl. 2001. Sociology Through Active Learning: Student Exercises.
The second edition was published in 2008.
A frequent question introductory sociology students have is what do sociologists do? Besides teaching in universities, colleges, and high schools, sociologists work in a wide variety of organizations. Although it was written a few years ago, these brief biographies of people who received B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees in sociology are still informative. Students might be interested in seeing an example of an applied sociologist at work in the film And the Band Played On. Chapter 18 (48:30) of the movie shows sociologist William W. Darrow, played by Richard Masur, collecting data and presenting his social cluster study arguing that AIDS is a sexually transmitted disease. An example of public sociology is the conflict resolution work of Johan Galtung, who helped to resolve a border dispute between Peru and Ecuador.