An Introduction to Sociology course could be renamed “Introduction to Seeing Structural Patterns in Society.” For those not used to looking at the world with this particular lens, such a class can be an education. I recall being in this position as an undergraduate and feeling the challenge; how can you see and understand the world from a structural perspective?
After concluding another semester teaching Intro to Soc, I realize I approach structural patterns in this class in at least three ways:
- Read and discuss sociological research deploying this perspective. The readings we do in this class range from early work to recent monographs that examine particular social forces. The readings tackle big issues in society that are far beyond the influence or experience of a single individual. The methods the sociologists employ, including surveys, interviews, ethnographic observations, and historical analysis, examine broader patterns and not just individual cases or single case studies. From DuBois highlighting “the veil” and “double consciousness” in his own life and in American society to Rendón discussing the difficulty of young Mexican men in Los Angeles obtaining the American Dream,
- Continually contrast structural perspective to a more individualistic view. As we discuss different topics, I often compare the ways we might individually experience life and particular social phenomena and the collective experience. Additionally, a common American individualistic approach – my decisions explain my circumstances – provides a foil to a sociological perspective. Even as we enact our own agency, we do so within conditions not entirely of our own making (as Marx suggested).
- Provide multiple opportunities for students to practice deploying structural perspectives. Some of the assignments I have throughout the semester ask students to connect their own experiences to sociological analysis. To do this, they need to step outside of themselves to see the bigger picture. Is their experience typical, different, and how might a sociological theory or concept explain it? As Mills suggested, history and biography come together in “the sociological imagination.”
By the end of all of this, I hope students will be able to use this sociological lens in different situations. Even as many will not be sociology majors, their work in different disciplines and a variety of careers could be enhanced by thinking sociologically with an emphasis on large-scale patterns and forces.