Internet headlines and stories present a disconnected world; a pitch for sociology

Whether you read headlines on the Google News page or the Drudge Report or the front page of Yahoo, Internet headlines and stories tend to provide very small slices of reality. Want to see the actions of a happy cat? How about the strange actions from someone with mental illness? What one C-list celebrity did last night? The inane “gaffe” from the campaign trail earlier today? Put all of these headlines together, some serious and many not, and what do you get? It is difficult to get a broad, cohesive view of the world from Internet stories. They can provide more information than people in the past ever had and let us know how many different people around the world live. Even good stories on websites devoted to more in-depth news present numerous topics. Yet, because of their fleeting, diversionary, and never-ending nature, they don’t add up to much. As a reader, how am I to put all the pieces together?

It is debatable how much better other forms of media do in delivering broader context and the bigger picture. Media forms composed of images – TV, films – have moved toward incredibly quick editing so that scenes rarely last more than a few seconds. Written forms – newspapers, magazines – have a reputation for deeper storytelling. Yet, this all assumes that a good number of citizens take the time to read such materials and understand them.

Perhaps this is where we don’t just need media or digital literacy; we need ways to put all the information together and keep the big picture in mind. What is underlying all these stories? What are the patterns in society? Why do these stories get attention and others do not? Sociology can help: you need to know the broader context, the powerful institutions at work in society, how information is created and sold, and the large-scale social trends. One story of an amazing animal tells us nothing; having tens of thousands of such tales might. Reading multiple stories about the Panama Papers might be interesting but we need to know how this intersects with all sorts of social systems (such as governments and corporations) and processes (such as social class and globalization).

It is too easy to get caught up in the quick accumulation of news and information without stepping back and trying to comprehend it all. We are good now at dispensing information but having difficulty digesting. We need frameworks in which to put the new headlines and stories. We need time to consider how this new information might affect us. All of this takes time and effort on the part of individuals – perhaps it is just easier to let all the information wash over us. But, even if we must do this at times, having a sociological perspective that sees social structures and forces and asks for empirical evidence could help us all.

(Disclaimer: I occasionally think about how to pitch sociology to undergraduates and this is one such attempt.)

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.


Philosophy professor makes a case for getting a sociology major

A philosophy professor argues that there are two good reasons for undergraduate students to major in sociology:

This comes down to several convincing points. First, sociology is a scientific discipline. It teaches students to use empirical data to understand current social realities. And sociologists use a variety of empirical research methods, from quantitative research to qualitative methods, to comparative and historical studies. Students who study sociology as undergraduates will certainly be exposed to the use of statistics as a method for representing and analyzing complex social phenomena; they will also be exposed to qualitative tools like interviews, focus groups, and participant-observer data. So a sociology education helps the student to think like a social scientist — attentive to facts, probing with hypotheses, offering explanations, critical in offering and assessing arguments for conclusions.

Second, the content of sociology is particularly important in our rapidly changing social world. Sociology promises to provide data and theory that help to better understand the human and social realities we confront. Moreover, the discipline is defined around the key social issues we all need to understand better than we currently do, and our policy makers need to understand if they are to design policies that allow for social progress: for example, race, poverty, urbanization, inequalities, globalization, immigration, environmental change, gender, power, and class. We might say that an important part of the value of a sociology education is that it gives the student a better grasp of the dynamics of these key social processes.

So sociology is indeed a valuable part of a university education. It provides a foundation for better understanding and engaging with the globalizing world our young people will need to navigate and lead. It provides students with the intellectual tools needed to make sense of the shifting and conflictual social world we live in, and this in turn permits them to contribute to solutions for the most difficult social problems that we face.

This sounds like the pitch many a sociology professor makes in an Introduction to Sociology course.

This also got me thinking about how many academics outside of sociology would defend sociology and suggest students should pursue it. Perhaps this is an issue for many disciplines but at the moment I can’t remember seeing too many public defenses of sociology from people of other disciplines.

Another famous sociology major: Arne Duncan

Occasionally I highlight famous sociology degree holders such as Ronald Reagan or the current President of Ireland or Martin Luther King, Jr. Add the current Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, to the list:

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan leads this year’s class of inductees for the Academic All-America Hall of Fame that was announced Tuesday by the College Sports Information Directors of America.

Duncan was a basketball co-captain at Harvard and the Crimson’s leading scorer at 16.9 points a game as a senior in 1986-87. He was first-team Academic All-American that year, graduating magna cum laude with a degree in sociology.

He tried his hand at pro basketball from 1987-91, including a stint in Australia.

Some students want to know that sociology majors can make a difference in the US government or in large organizations. This is a good example: Duncan built upon his degree and parlayed into a career in education.

The title of Duncan’s senior thesis at Harvard sounds like something that might come out of a William Julius Wilson text:

Duncan attended the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools[2] and later Harvard University, where he graduated magna cum laude in 1987 with a bachelor’s degree in sociology. His senior thesis, for which he took a year’s leave to do research in the Kenwood neighborhood, was entitled The values, aspirations and opportunities of the urban underclass.

It would be interesting to hear Duncan talk more specifically about how a sociology degree has helped him see the world differently and get involved in and move up within government organizations.

Can you imagine what might happen if Duncan, working out of personal experience as well as an administrator, led a charge to include sociology in curriculum?

Ireland’s President Michael D. Higgins has a master’s degree in sociology

I’m always on the lookout for famous people with sociology degrees. Being the President of a country counts: Ireland’s President Michael D. Higgins is considered a sociologist.

Higgins holds a graduate degree in sociology.In his academic career, he was a Statutory Lecturer in the Department of Political Science and Sociology at University College Galway and was a Visiting Professor at Southern Illinois University. He resigned his academic posts to concentrate fully on his political career.

Higgins received a master’s degree in sociology from Indiana University in 1967:

“On behalf of Indiana University, I would like to congratulate IU alumnus Michael D. Higgins upon his election as the ninth president of Ireland and culmination of a long and distinguished career as a politician, lecturer, author and human rights activist,” McRobbie said. “Over the course of four decades, President-elect Higgins has dedicated himself to championing Irish culture and passionately defending human rights causes in many parts of the world. He is also renowned for the many intellectual contributions he has made to modern political, philosophical and literary discourse. All of us at IU wish him the greatest success as he prepares to apply his extensive knowledge and experiences to his new role as Ireland’s senior ambassador.”

Higgins received a master of arts degree in sociology at IU Bloomington in 1967.

Higgins is also apparently an honorary life member of the Sociological Association of Ireland.

I wonder if anyone has done a study on the effectiveness of leaders with sociological degrees. Sociology is an unusually broad field, containing insights for many areas of social life as well as for social interactions. I would hope that sociologists can do unique things because of their training…

Unemployment rate by college major

A January 2012 report titled “Hard Times” from the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce looked at earnings by college major. Here are the four main findings of the study:

1. Choice of major substantially affects employment prospects and earnings.

2. People who make technology are better off than people who use technology.

3. In general, majors that are linked to occupations have better employment prospects than majors focused on general skills. But, some occupation specific majors, such as Architecture, were hurt by the recession and fared worse than general skills majors.

4. For many, pursuing a graduate degree may be the best option until the economy recovers. But, not all graduate degrees outperform all BA’s on employment.

This seems to reinforce the recent push for STEM disciplines as well as more vocational-type programs. Here are the unemployment rates by educational degree and for a few college disciplines:

A study published in January from the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce finds unemployment among job seekers with no better than a high school diploma at 22.9 percent.

And it doesn’t get any better for high school dropouts, whose unemployment rate sits at 31.5 percent among high school dropouts.

While a college degree gives job seekers a formidable advantage over those without, the study finds not all degrees are created equal and there are a number of factors that prospective students should consider before signing their major. The study cited unemployment rates for recent college graduates with a bachelor’s degree at 8.9 percent.

According to the report, fields in anthropology and archeology  have an unemployment rate of 10.5 percent, philosophy and religious studies are at 10.8 percent, sociology 8.6 percent and journalism is at 7.7 percent.

Given the common discourse you will hear about sociology majors (particularly those that rack up lots of college debt!), I’m happy to see that sociology is slightly above average. The sociology unemployment rate is 8.6% for recent college graduates, 5.4% for experienced college graduates, better than the percentages for political science, economics, English, and philosophy and religious studies.

Stanford student bristles at question: “What are you going to do with a sociology degree?”

A Stanford student writes about having to answer a question common to sociology majors:

What annoys me, however, is when people ask “So what are you going to do with a Sociology degree?” Within the phrasing and intonation of this question are often a number of subtle assumptions and judgments. The first is the implication that I’ve chosen a useless degree because it doesn’t give me a clear path or job field to enter after college. The second is the assumption that my undergraduate degree determines my next steps; that because I am getting a B.A. in Sociology, I will pursue work in this field. The ultimate frustration I have with this question, one that often comes out during the course of the conversation, is the need for the person asking me the question to fit my answer and future plans into a discrete career label such as teacher, lawyer or lobbyist. In reality, none of these is true. My degree is not useless. Nor am I required to pursue things related to sociology. In fact, my job will probably not have any sort of neat label at all.

I find these issues crop up when talking to Stanford students as well, and I often feel looked down upon for not having chosen a more pre-professional path. I’ve had numerous conversations with techie students in which it is clear that they look down upon fuzzy majors. The culture among Stanford students lauds techie degrees as practical, which ends up framing fuzzy majors as useless. Although it is true that a Stanford engineering degree offers higher salaries and a guaranteed job right out of Stanford, a liberal arts degree is not a death knell. Liberal arts degrees have tremendous value even though they don’t shepherd the student into an obvious career trajectory and throw money at them.

My degree opens up a world of possibilities to me. Although the skills I’ve gained are less quantifiable than those from techie majors, my time at Stanford has vastly improved my writing, my critical thinking skills, my research skills and my ability to put together a coherent and convincing argument. All of these are qualities that employers look for and make me a valuable commodity on the job market. Every company that employs those high-paid CS majors also needs people to do marketing, HR, management and public relations. Any and all of these options are available to me with my liberal arts degree from Stanford.

People forget that many Americans have jobs have little to nothing to do with their undergraduate department, so it’s of little concern to me that my job be related to sociology. Some of my relatives get this and some don’t, but as our conversations continue they struggle to find a job label for the future me; do I want to be a consultant? A social worker? I should be a teacher! It’s like they’re grasping at straws for a name that they know and understand, failing to realize that jobs don’t always fall into these labels. Like most adults, I will probably have a job that has a title that you’ve never heard of and that doesn’t fall cleanly into any category. What’s important to me is that I find a job that accomplishes something that I believe is a valuable use of my time; the end goal is what’s important, not the name.

Some of this argument sounds very common to the perspective of millennials  such as a career needs to be “a valuable use of my time.” But she is also making a common defense of the liberal arts and the need for these skills in the workplace.

I don’t know that I would tell students that they could do anything “with my liberal arts degree from Stanford” (is the Stanford part here much more important than the liberal arts component?) or that it should be “of little concern to me that my job be related to sociology.” I think there is plenty to sell about sociology which she hints at: a way of looking at the world that is difficult to find in other majors. The broad overview and theoretical approach sociology offers that gets at the complex patterns present in society through a set of data collection and analysis skills is very valuable. Of course, this can be packaged and used in a number of different fields but sociology is simply not just a “fuzzy major” or just another major option. In a globalized society marked by increasing levels of complexity and dynamic change, we need more sociology majors.

Defending Georgetown’s sociology class on Jay-Z

Georgetown’s sociology class on Jay-Z (“SOCI -124-01 or Sociology of Hip-Hop — Urban Theodicy of Jay-Z”) continues to draw attention from a wide variety of sources but one recent report contains a twist: defending the class from those who criticize its relevance.

“This is not a class meant to sit around and go, ‘Oh man, those lyrics were dope,’ Dyson said, who is a Princeton-educated author, syndicated radio host and ordained Baptist minister. “We’re dealing with everything that’s important in a sociology class: race, gender, ethnicity, class, economic inequality, social injustice. . . . His body of work has proved to be powerful, effective and influential. And it’s time to wrestle with it.”

The class has already filled its 80-student enrollment cap the first week of the semester, which forced Dyson to relocate into a larger classroom that can hold 140 students. In the lecture hall scheduled every Monday and Wednesday, students gain insight of rap music’s political impact in a different light. Drawing parallels to other prominent figures such as civil rights pioneer W.E.B. Du Bois and the rhymes of rap legend Notorious B.I.G., Dyson’s teachings discusses Jay-Z from his street hustles to ascending to the top, which have sparked many conversations on campus…

Regardless of some disapproval from parents, the 53-year-old is serving as a bridge in which ideas about hip-hop can reach a younger audience. Timonthy Wickham-Crowley, chairman of Georgetown’s sociology department, supports Dyson’s course by arguing that the study of Jay-Z’s work is a valuable tool for sociological examination.

“When [Dyson] comes out of the classroom, he has students in tow and there are these animated, engaged conversations going on,” he said.

It would be interesting to hear more from these parents: do they think that hip-hop is an inappropriate topic for a college class or are there are other concerns? It would be interesting to know whether this course helps promote sociology (it’s relevant!) or contributes to the criticism that we study “soft” topics (you’re paying that much money to go to Georgetown and you’re learning what?).

Also, the quote in support from Dyson from the department chair here is not the greatest sociological defense: it is a popular course that is stimulating conversation. Rather, the better defense comes from Dyson himself who suggests the class is really about “race, gender, ethnicity, class, economic inequality, social injustice…” (We could also add culture to this mix.) In some ways, the topic here isn’t that important (it could be Lady Gaga, for instance, or Hollywood blockbusters or how gender is portrayed in advertising or the NFL) but rather how sociological topics are part of everyday life.

Beating up on the sociology degree

I spotted two stories in recent days that suggest sociology majors have no value. The first was at the Wall Street Journal and titled “Sociology and Other ‘Meathead’ Majors“:

In this happy season of college graduations, students and parents will probably not be reflecting on the poor choices those students made in selecting their courses and majors…Most colleges offer a cornucopia of choices, and most of the choices are bad.

The bad choices are more attractive because they are easy. Picking not quite at random, let’s take sociology. That great American democrat Archie Bunker used to call his son-in-law “Meathead” for his fatuous opinions, and Meathead was a graduate student in sociology. A graduate student in sociology is one who didn’t get his fill of jargonized wishful thinking as an undergraduate. Such a person will never fail to disappoint you. But sociology has close competitors in other social sciences (including mine, political science) and in the humanities…

Others try to imitate the sciences and call themselves “social scientists.” The best imitators of scientists are the economists. Among social scientists they rank highest in rigor, which means in mathematics. They also rank highest in boastful pretension, and you can lose more money listening to them than by trying to read books in sociology. Just as Gender Studies taints the whole university with its sexless fantasies, so economists infect their neighbors with the imitation science they peddle. (Game theorists, I’m talking about you.)

I am not quite sure what is going on here as Mansfield indicts a broad swath of disciplines, including implicating his own field of political science. Is he suggesting that the natural sciences are not “counterfeit majors” because they deal with facts? Should colleges be steering all students away from majors other than the natural sciences that are unwilling to make value judgments? Mansfield seems more interested in making inflammatory comments about other disciplines than in providing solutions to the problems of the modern university. And the affirmation of Archie Bunker’s views of his son-in-law seems strange considering Bunker’s conservative and inflammatory viewpoints.

The second putdown came in the opening to a piece about the spelling bee in the Washington Post:

The National Spelling Bee, now underway — or it it weigh? — is a hilarious concept. What better way to announce to the world at large that you have a totally useless and unmarketable skill — besides, I guess, framing your sociology degree? You’re a world-champion speller, eh? Do you also play the mountain dulcimer? That might have more practical applications in the workforce.

I’m guessing this is supposed to be facetious but still, it suggests a sociology degree is akin to having a “totally useless and unmarketable skill.”

Perhaps this is all part of the larger discussion about the value of college and getting a job but I suspect there will be many more opinions thrown out there about certain disciplines and sociology in particular. It looks like sociologists should continue to think about how to best describe the value of sociology for both our students and the broader world.

Ronald Reagan was a sociology and economics major

I occasionally run into stories about famous people who were sociology majors in college (these are often professional athletes) and found another example yesterday: President Ronald Reagan was a sociology and economics major. And this came from an unlikely source, Newt Gingrich, who was speaking at Reagan’s alma mater, Eureka College:

Gingrich, who announced last week he is seeking the GOP nomination for president in 2012, braved rain and wind to speak to about 140 students at Eureka College in western Illinois.

The former House speaker said the small liberal arts college was one of the most influential institutions of the late 20th century because of its ties with Reagan. The 40th president graduated from the school in 1932.

“The collapse of the Soviet Union began here in 1928,” he said to audience members. “The resurrection of general economics and the development of American economic growth and jobs for 25 years began here when Dutch Reagan took a degree in economics and sociology.”

I had never heard this before so I did a little digging into this:

-The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Foundation says Reagan was an economics major: “Ronald Reagan officially majored in Economics at Eureka College, but unofficially minored in extra-curricular activities.”

-The Reagan portal for Eureka College gives a lengthier explanation:

Academically, Reagan’s major area of study was Economics and Sociology in which he received his degree in 1932. Somehow, blinded by the lights of Hollywood, this academic element has been overshadowed in history, yet, as U.S. President, it had a powerful intellectual impact on Reagan. Eureka College taught Economics and Sociology as a joint degree purposefully as a pure reflection of the College’s goals reflecting “the mutual development of intellect and character” or Economic=Money and Sociology=People or How Money Effects People. The servant leadership focus of the College founders still pervaded the culture and curriculum of Eureka College.

Several thoughts quickly come to mind:

1. Would it be bad for Reagan, probably the foremost conservative in the late 20th century, to be known as someone who studied sociology as opposed to economics? (I am thinking of the Presidential Library emphasis on economics while Eureka explains how the two disciplines were combined.)

2. Would it be possible anywhere these days to have a joint major in economics and sociology? These two often seem to be placed at opposite poles of thought.

3. It strikes me that having a former US President as an alum could be a huge boon for a small college. However, it does mean that Newt Gingrich wanted to visit…