Three Soc 101 concepts illustrated on Big Brother

Many television shows could (and have) been mined for sociological content. Big Brother is no different. Here are three concepts:

https://www.cbs.com/shows/big_brother/
  1. Houseguests talk about having “a social game.” This roughly means having good interactions with everyone. A more sociological term for this might be looking to accrue social capital. With so many players at the beginning, this might be hard: simply making connections, talking to a variety of people, discussing strategy, contribute positively to house life. But, this social capital can pay off as the numbers dwindle, people show their different capabilities, and the competition heats up. It could also be described as the ability to manipulate or coerce people without others hating you, particularly when it comes down to the jury selecting the winner among the final two.
  2. Connected to the importance of social capital are the numerous social networks that develop quickly and can carry players to the end. The social networks can be larger or smaller (ranging from two people up to 6 or more), some people are in multiple networks (more central) while others may be in just one or none (less central), and the ties within networks can be very strong or relatively weak. At some point in a season, the overlapping or competing networks come into conflict and houseguests have to make decisions about which network commitments to honor – or reject.
  3. There are plenty of instances where race, class, and gender and other social markers matter. A typical season has a mix of people. Relationships and alliances/networks can be built along certain lines. Competitions can highlight differences between people. The everyday interactions – or lack of interaction between certain people – can lead to harmony or tension. Some people may be more open about their backgrounds outside the house, others are quieter. With viewers selecting America’s Favorite Houseguest, there is also an opportunity to appeal to the public.

There is more that could be said here and in more depth. Indeed, a quick search of Google Scholar suggests a number of academics have studied the show. Yet, television shows are accessible to many and applying sociological concepts can be a good exercise for building up a sociological perspective. Even if the world does not operate like “Big Brother,” this does not mean that aspects of the show do not mirror social realities.

Basic sociology in the story of a fancy burger from cattle breeding to plate

The story of a $20 hamburger in Washington, D.C. reminded me of several basic sociology concepts from Introduction to Sociology:

ham burger with vegetables

Photo by Valeria Boltneva on Pexels.com

But for months, the burger had been traveling through a complex supply chain crippled by the novel coronavirus. Now it was about to end up in a takeout box…

On the burger’s journey from a Kansas farm to the engineer’s dinner plate, every person had a story like Solano’s. A rancher with five children who lost thousands every week. A factory worker who brought the virus home to her son. A courier who calculated the true cost of every delivery not in profit, but in the risk it required her to take.

To follow the burger is to glimpse the lasting toll of this pandemic: on the beef supply chain, on the restaurant industry, on the people who were struggling before this catastrophe began, kept going to work throughout it and are still waiting to see what their lives will become when it ends.

A few of the sociological concepts in the story:

  1. The miracle of modern systems. The number of people involved, the travel, and the meanings and social policy it play all hint at the complexity and ability of rationalized processes to bring a burger to the home of city residents. Reminds me of Durkheim’s organic solidarity and division of labor as well as Ritzer’s McDonaldization.
  2. The human involvement and costs all along the way. Producers and workers struggling, consumers eating the product with little idea of how it all happened, and an economic and social system that tried to make it as profitable as possible. Furthermore, many of the people are faceless and their personal and collective circumstances – whether race, class, or gender – are obscured or ignored. Reminds me of Marx and alienated workers as well as consumption patterns within modern capitalism.
  3. I am struck by two additional factors that perhaps could be hinted at during Intro to Sociology: does this story illustrate urban-rural divides? The city residents, young 30-somethings order fancy burgers after a week of white-collar work, ranchers raise cattle in the middle of the country, and faceless workers in between facilitate the exchange. And does this illustrate how broad social change is within the United States over the last century? Some aspects of this story could fit 100 years ago – the shipment of beef and other agricultural commodities helped make Chicago and other places – while other aspects would be unheard of. People need to eat and make money but how this happens evolves over time.

Intro to Sociology with 82 year old “godfather of Canadian menswear”

I imagine Intro to Sociology might be a little different with a 82 year old menswear magnate in class:

Even in his school duds — no tie, sometimes even jeans, if you can believe it — Harry Rosen was the best-dressed student this fall in Intro Sociology.

“I dress casually for class, but never without a jacket,” stated the godfather of Canadian menswear, who, at 82, decided this year to start studying humanities at Ryerson University.

He has been excused from exams because he still juggles part-time duty with his luxury clothing empire — he has a meeting Friday with a customer who still prefers to “Ask Harry,” semi-retired or not; some are now fourth-generation clients. He also fundraises for Bridgepoint Health and the University Health Network’s stem-cell team that created a research chair in his name, and serves on boards of institutions such as Ryerson…

History Prof. Martin Greig said he enjoyed the “octogenarian sitting amongst the 17- and 18-year-olds who made up the bulk of this first year course on medieval Europe. He was very attentive and seemed genuinely appreciative of my efforts. It was fun to have him there and I hope that he follows through with his intention to take my Cold War course in the winter term.”

“I love learning and I need that activity, in good measure because of my regrets at not getting a university-level education when I was young,” said Rosen, a self-taught retail mogul who went from high school straight to work, opening a modest men’s shop with his brother and then spending the next 60 years learning what he needed from carefully chosen partners.

It is good to hear about life-long learners who want to find out more about the world. Of course, this doesn’t have to happen in a college classroom. Yet, I think his example could go a long way with younger college students. With some of the figures about student learning in college and completion rates, his interaction with students might be the most valuable thing that happens in the classroom.

Student writes letter to Sociology 301 course, reinforces stereotype about the easiness of sociology

A Canadian student wrote a letter to her Sociology 301 course about what went wrong:

But slowly, week by week, you became less interesting. I don’t know what it was, but I just didn’t want to see you anymore. I showed up, sure, and I continued to take notes, but my heart just wasn’t in the relationship like it had been in July. You had grown dull, boring. I wanted something better, something that kept my attention, and I thought of the classes I’d taken last fall, but I continued our weekly meetings.

The first mid-term came, which was wonderfully open book. I passed with minimal studying and flying colours. I think our relationship rekindled a bit there, because I remembered why I was so taken with you in the beginning: you were easy.

But then the second mid-term approached, and I knew I wasn’t prepared. All my note taking wasn’t enough to make sense of your endless rambles. What did I actually know of society, the course material, since I barely listened in class, choosing to read a novel in between writing down your notes. So I studied hard, not wanting you to know I was losing interest. I wanted you to believe that I still cared. And I passed, again, and I don’t think you knew just how little I wanted to see you anymore…

The final was today, and I have to say, I’m not going to miss you, Soc. Sure, we had some fun times, some great moments of discussion and humour, but we’re just not made for each other. I’m going to go back to journalism classes in the fall, I think you should know that. No, we can’t hang out anymore – you’re just not right for me. And despite my grades, I don’t care about you. I faked the whole relationship. I’m sorry.

While this could be taken as a story about the lack of effort from college students, I’m more interested in the other part: why take a sociology course in the first place? The early parts of this letter (not quoted above) share the student’s enthusiasm for the course. But, by the time the exams rolled around, the true sole reason emerges: the class was supposed to be easy and it didn’t quite turn out that way. And when it got a little tough, sociology suddenly didn’t seem so exciting.

I’m not surprised by this as sociology often has a reputation as an easy class. Doesn’t everyone know about society? Isn’t a lot of it common sense? I wonder if the student who wrote the letter might have had a different opinion if that first mid-term was challenging which might have led her to more engagement before the second mid-term. By asking interesting questions, sociologists can demonstrate that it is discipline that offers variety, complexity, and connections to individuals and groups. Indeed, a good portion of Introduction to Sociology is about showing that the richness of the discipline, one which many college students have not heard of or only have cursory knowledge. Humans present an ever-moving target with complex and fluid relationships. Collecting and analyzing data can be complicated. Working with and developing to explain (and perhaps even predict?) human behavior is messy. The (implicit) goal of Introduction to Sociology is to show all of this and present sociology as a worthy discipline that can enrich student’s lives as well as help the world.

 

Sociology: the study of constrained choices

I recent saw a blurb about a new online course that explores how sociology explains how we make choices:

In his lecture “If You’re So Free, Why Do You Follow Others? The Sociology and Science Behind Social Networks,” part of Floating University’s Great Big Ideas course, Christakis explains why individual actions are inextricably linked to sociological pressures. Whether you’re absorbing altruism performed by someone you’ll never meet or deciding to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge, collective phenomena affect every aspect of your life.

Christakis is well-known for research in recent years that shows things like obesity and emotions spreading through social networks and affecting friends of friends.

But this larger idea about constrained choices is interesting. When faced with a new Introduction to Sociology class at the beginning of the semester, this is one of the ideas that I present to them: sociology is less interested in how individuals make their individual choices and more interested in how larger social factors, society, culture, institutions, networks, etc., constrain the choices of individuals in certain ways. While we live in a culture that loves to celebrate individual choice, we don’t really have completely free choices to make. Common areas of analysis in sociology, such as race, social class, and gender, can open up or limit possible choices for individuals.

Of course, there are sociologists more interested in individual choice. This has led to a larger debate in the discipline between agency and structure. But overall, sociologists tend to focus more than other disciplines on social factors that often unknowingly affect all of us.

UPDATE 12/21/11: The Washington Post gives more information on this course that will be offered on a few elite college campuses as well as online.

How long do students keep notes from their college classes?

While discussing some of the things that he left behind in the transition between the analog and digital world, a writer includes his notes from Sociology 101:

I collected a lot of things. A large part of my identity revolved around the acquisition and accumulation of books. I also collected CDs, DVDs, comics and other cultural ephemera. I kept movie tickets, clippings of articles, flyers, interesting things I picked up. I couldn’t bear to throw these out because I thought that there might come a time when I might need something —like, say, my readings in Sociology 101 from the year 2000.

Who knew when I would have to define the sociological imagination? Or when I would need to define the political dynamics and do a comparative analysis of the authoritarian leadership styles of Lee Kuan Yew and Saddam Hussein based on my studies of Politics and Change in the Third World in 2001? Oh and there were empty liquor bottles signed by friends from the early Noughties wishing me a happy nineteenth or twentieth birthday, and lord knows a situation might arise when I might need those too.

If I was the professor of this Soc 101 class, what should be my response on hearing this? Happiness in that a former student might have turned to these notes? Depression because the student had years to look at these and never did again? Or indifference since this student seemed to collect a lot of things, not just sociology notes?

More broadly, I would be curious to know how often college students return to their books and notes from school. Does anyone have any systematic data on the subject? I suspect the data would look like a Poisson curve: most students have never returned to these sources. But couldn’t this be a measure of the “effectiveness” or “success” of a particular class, an outcome that colleges and professors might be interested in knowing about? Typically, we get information on evaluations forms from the closing moments of class, a time when students might be able to judge the immediate effect of a class but can shed little light on the longer-lasting impact of a particular course. Imagine if we found that a more popular sociological text like Gang Leader For a Day was popular in the short-term but a text like The Truly Disadvantaged stuck with students for years. Both outcomes could be desirable – a short-term book or lecture can draw people into the subject or enhance the classroom experience while a longer-term book or lecture can influence lives down the road – but are qualitatively different pieces of information.

Perhaps this could all be explained by personality types: there are people who keep things from the past and those who do not. But I suspect that professors would like to think that they have the potential in many lectures or in the sources they put in front of students to influence any student for years.

The unwritten rules of social life as illustrated by a baseball interchange

Our daily social lives contain a number of interchanges that follow unwritten social rules. (Here is one that I recently wrote about: saying “thanks for your service” to military personnel.) The same thing happens in sports, as illustrated by this well-reported interchange between the Los Angeles Angels and Detroit Tigers:

In his obviously genius book, “Everything Is Obvious: Once You Know the Answer,” sociologist Duncan J. Watts explains the notion that our lives are dictated by thousands of unwritten rules that we rarely, if ever, stop to examine…

The problem with the sport’s unwritten rules is that …

“They’re unwritten,” Tigers ace Justin Verlander said with a laugh.

Exactly. And Verlander and the Tigers were involved in a game with the Angels here at Comerica Park the other day that showcased the silliness of living by an unwritten rulebook very much open to interpretation. It was a game so steeped in indecipherable, unwritten language that it ought to have been sponsored by Rosetta Stone.

This interchange led to a lot of debate among sports pundits: was it justified or not?

I think there are two better, and more sociological, questions to ask: where exactly do players learn to follow this code and how could the whole process be stopped? The first question refers to the socialization process. At some point, players must be instructed or at least observe this code. They also learn how they might be punished by other players if they do not follow it. It would be interesting to ask individual players whether they really feel that this is acceptable behavior or if they follow along because of peer pressure.

The second question refers to how baseball could make this behavior deviant. One way would be to increase the sanctions so that the code becomes very unattractive. Such sanctions could include punishments for managers and perhaps even teams. To this point, baseball has instituted some punishments but they clearly aren’t enough to stop such incidents. Another way would be to start teaching a new code at the lower levels of baseball, minor leagues or even below. In response, players might say that they still need ways to deal with showboating (done by Carlos Guillen in this incident) but I think baseball would find it hard to determine what exactly counts and what doesn’t.

This may just be a good example of social norms to use in an Introduction to Sociology class.

Using mapping to help students understand the racial dimension of their world

A sociologist describes a mapping project that helps students connect their everyday experiences to larger racial patterns:

Theresa Suarez, an associate professor of sociology at San Marcos, has taught partially online courses on racial and ethnic identity for years. But Suarez found it was difficult to enable her students, many of whom are people of color, to connect the theoretical material she taught in class and their own narratives, she explained during a session here on Tuesday at the Emerging Technologies in Online Learning conference, hosted by MERLOT and the Sloan Consortium…

Suarez, who describes herself as late-adopter (her presentation here was a rare foray for her into teaching with PowerPoint) and an occasional techno-skeptic, resolved to find a technological solution that would not require a lot of complexity or jargon. So she turned to online software that uses geographic information systems to let students superimpose demographic data about race and ethnicity onto maps of their local communities.

Suarez instructed her students to place digital pushpins on places that shape their own experiences of where they live. “Where do you shop?” she said, by way of example. “Where do you surf? Where does your girlfriend or boyfriend live? What schools did you attend? Where do you work? Where don’t you go?”

The students then had to reflect, in essay form, on the points of reference marked by the pushpins, describing how each of those places plays a role in their identities — particularly in light of what they learned by seeing demographic data mapped on to their communities.

Perhaps this project is not all that innovative but I like it for several reasons:

1. This seems to be a microcosm of a sociological perspective: providing a structural context for our individual actions. This project would help students see how their daily activities and identities are shaped by demographic patterns, even if they hadn’t noticed them before. Instead of seeing these activities as individual choices, students can see how racial patterns influence their behavior.

2. Students can use their personal experiences as “data” and then work to provide sociological explanations.

3. These mapping abilities and software are fairly easy to obtain and they would be useful for future work.

4. I’ve always liked maps as they provide an overhead view of the world (just like sociology).

I’ve thought about doing some sort of mapping project in my Introduction to Sociology class and this may just be a good springboard.

Explaining our social world to alien visitors

Sociology has a meme involving aliens: what would someone from Mars observe or conclude if they came to Earth and looked at modern society? Although it doesn’t come from a sociologist, here is an update on this idea that includes McMansions:

Since they haven’t answered, we could assume that the humans in space aren’t sophisticated enough to interpret our radio signals.

But just imagine how we can help them when we do find them. We can teach them everything we know and speed up their evolution into modern man in a flash. We could have them skip over the stone age, the bronze age, the iron age, the industrial revolution, and be flipping microchips and tweeting by sunset. How exhilarating it will be for us to teach them about fire and wheels. We could bypass the telegraph, and give them 3DTV! Imagine their excitement, moving from a cave to a McMansion with granite countertops? Once they learn how to use all the gadgets — iPod, iPad, iPhone — they would only need to learn the basics of reading and math.

The sequence of what we teach would be important. It would be terrible to show them how to accumulate stuff before we taught them how to defend themselves from those who would take their stuff away. Would spears be good enough or would we need to give them guns, guided missiles, or maybe an atomic bomb? And if they come from a tribal background, would every tribe need an atomic bomb?…

Of course, there is a chance that humans, way out there in space, have been receiving our signals. Maybe, they’re a lot smarter than we imagine. Maybe, they know all about us. Maybe, they have decided it’s better not to answer our call.

This may seem like a silly exercise but it has some value: it can be hard to take an outsider’s perspective of our own world. By trying to adopt the viewpoint of someone who might come from a completely different social system (and planet), it helps us take a broader and overhead look at our own actions and social relations.

I sense some satire here about showing our visitors 3DTV, McMansions, and iPads. This sounds like a suggestion that we pay too much attention to technological and physical comforts without remembering the foundation beneath them such as social structures, basic tools, government, and moral values. This seems related to the question of what civilization relies on.

Basic sociological question: “what does civilization as we know it rely on?”

Big questions about society can be great for Introduction to Sociology courses. Here is are the sorts of questions that I think could work quite well:

So, what sort of machines do you need to create an industrial civilization—kind of like the ones we have now, but more sensibly sourced. I remember taking a sociology course years ago where we started out with a similar question, although we conceived the question more broadly—what does civilization as we know it rely on? The answer then (decades ago, before the impact of The Whole Earth Catalog had been felt) was something along the lines of “technology.” But this is a much better question.

If we stuck with the second question here, “what does civilization as we know it rely on?”, I could imagine a class could generate a lot of answers:

1. The Internet. In the vast scope of human history, this may seem silly. But for people raised in the Internet era, it would be pretty hard to imagine life without it.

2. Electricity. This makes all sorts of things possible.

3. The steam engine. This helped give rise to the Industrial Revolution.

And so on. But these are all technological changes that could go back to the plow and the wheel and illustrate the human capacity to create and utilize tools. We just happen to live in an era where such technological change is rapid and our daily lives are full of machines. But what about more cultural or sociological phenomena?

1. Language. The ability to communicate in formalized ways gave rise to oral traditions, writing, etc.

2. Government. This doesn’t necessarily have to mean the big bureaucracies of today that impressed Max Weber. But just a form of ruling or authority that helped bring about communities.

3. Sustained agriculture. This has been the traditional answer to how humans were able to create more complex societies in the Fertile Crescent. This is now being challenged by a new argument based on evidence of early religion in Turkey.

I’ll have to think about using these questions in class. They seem particularly good for helping students consider the basic building blocks of human social life before diving into specific sociological phenomena.