Learning to see sociological patterns in Intro to Sociology

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?

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After concluding another semester teaching Intro to Soc, I realize I approach structural patterns in this class in at least three ways:

  1. 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,
  2. 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).
  3. 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.

Meritocracy vs. structures illustrated by a British rapper who chose LSE over Cambridge

I have seen a number of stories in recent days about a 17 year old British rapper from a disadvantaged area, Franklyn Addo, who had a choice to study at five British universities, including Cambridge. In The Guardian, Addo explains why he chose to study sociology at the London School of Economics (LSE):

The real reasons that lead me to my decision – one I did not take lightly – are much more significant than the lack of a “music scene”. Having meticulously assessed the content of the courses offered at LSE and Cambridge, I decided I would be more suited to the course in London. Crucially, studying at LSE also makes more financial sense, as I would not have to pay for accommodation.

Obtaining an offer from Oxbridge is such a rarity, especially for people like me who come from a relatively deprived area. This causes some to believe that the interview process is bound to be extremely scary. Contrary to this, I found the interview was not frightening; the environment was pleasant and the interviewers welcoming. I enjoyed having a formal conversation about concepts within sociology, a field I am passionate about. After being given time to digest a case study, two interviewers quizzed me about the information I was given and assessed my ability to make links between sociological, psychological and political concepts. If you are knowledgeable about the subject you’re applying for, the interview process is likely to be enjoyable, although indubitably challenging.

Indeed, from my personal experience, Cambridge appears to be meritocratic and non-discriminatory, although the demographics of current undergraduate students may suggest differently. Some of my peers view Oxbridge as a desirable goal to which some aspire, but others see it as an elitist institution; perhaps due to the false belief that it is impossible for them to receive offers to study there. People from deprived areas must assess their way of thinking and begin to understand that society is becoming increasingly meritocratic and that anything is possible with hard work.

Furthermore, schools and colleges should encourage people who have the academic ability to apply and help them with the process – as my sociology teacher at Woodhouse College in Barnet, Nazia Rahim, did with me. She provided me with extracurricular help, a mock interview for Cambridge and was pivotal in developing my understanding that I can achieve what I set my mind to. Schools and authority figures should be active in empowering the local community to aim high from a young age and encourage young people to take part in extracurricular activities so they are attractive applicants to whichever university they decide upon, or whatever career they decide to pursue.

What interests me in this account is how he describes reactions to Oxbridge (referring to Cambridge and Oxford): are they elitist or meritocratic? Addo seems to subscribe to the meritocratic argument, suggesting “society is becoming increasingly meritocratic and that anything is possible with hard work.” But would this be the viewpoint of many sociologists and those who study sociology? On the whole, sociologists would talk about the difficulties of social mobility and how class structures, both in wealth and cultural disparities, influence life chances. But here Addo describes his chances as the result of “hard work” and the efforts of his sociology teacher.

If sociologists were asked about their own successes and not about life chances in the abstract, would they suggest it was because of their own hard work and efforts (the meritocratic side) or because they had structural advantages (the elitist side)? When talking with students or their kids, can sociologists teach about broader structures but then suggest to individuals kids that their life chances are highly determined by their own efforts? Perhaps this is taking the agency vs. structure debate to a personal level to ask whether individuals attribute their successes or maybe just their failures to structures.

A new traffic control device: painting a picture of a child on the road

The battle to control speeders has a new weapon:

On Tuesday, the town [West Vancouver, Canada] unveiled a new way to persuade motorists to ease off the gas pedal in the vicinity of the École Pauline Johnson Elementary School: a 2-D image of a child playing, creating the illusion that the approaching driver will soon blast into a child.

According to Discover magazine, the pavement painting appears to rise up as the driver gets closer to it, reaching full 3-D realism at around 100 feet: “Its designers created the image to give drivers who travel at the street’s recommended 18 miles per hour (30 km per hour) enough time to stop before hitting Pavement Patty — acknowledging the spectacle before they continue to safely roll over her.”

I would be very curious to know how effective this is. While the article suggests that drivers may then be more prone to hit real children, drivers might also just eventually tune out the painting, much as they do with traffic signs.

Another school of thought would suggest measures like this painting are missing the point. What really should change are the structure and design of streets. If you want people to drive more safely, make roads narrower and include parked cars on both sides. Or, one could go as far as European traffic engineer Hans Monderman who advocated removing all traffic signs – since drivers ignore them much of the time anyway, having no signs might force them to pay more attention.