| || | Apu takes the U.S. Citizenship Test in this episode of The Simpsons; video transcript below (note: turn volume up; audio is poor). Test Administrator:
Alright, here’s your last question: What was the cause of the Civil War? Apu:
Actually there were numerous causes, aside from the obvious schism between abolitionists and anti-abolitionists, economic factors, both domestic and international, played a significant– Test Administrator:
Hey, hey. Apu:
Yeah? Test Administrator:
Just, just say "slavery." Apu:
Slavery it is, sir.
Three years ago this April, our country commemorated the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. This year, we commemorate the midpoint of the Civil War, the peak of the conflict in which three-quarters of a million soldiers
lost their lives, and many millions more were devastated by the loss of their loved ones and homes. July 1st will mark 150 years since the Battle of Gettysburg, the major turning point in the war in which the momentum towards victory shifted to the north. It is at moments such as these, as museums and historic battlefield exhibits offer commemorations and special events, that conversations about the causes and meaning of this war resurface, and offer engaging opportunities for classroom discussion.
In the few short years that I have been teaching about war in college classrooms, I have noticed an interesting and complex social mythology in the minds of many students about the causes of the Civil War. There is widespread acknowledgement among many students that slavery was a cause of the Civil War, but this acknowledgement is quickly followed by some kind of expression that slavery is the “simple” answer, or not the “real” answer. Many students seem to believe that, while ordinary Americans think slavery caused the Civil War, scholars and historians are aware of a much more complex reality.
"Many students seem to believe that, while ordinary Americans think slavery caused the Civil War, scholars and historians are aware of a much more complex reality."
This is, of course, shocking to me as someone who studies the history of war because it is the exact opposite of reality. According to Princeton historian James McPherson
, at least 90 to 95 percent of Civil War historians agree
that slavery was the primary driving cause of the war. I am certainly not the first to note the divergence between how scholars and the American public conceive of the causes of the Civil War, but why is this misconception so pervasive and how can educators challenge this social myth in the classroom? My experiences teaching about the sociology of war have led me to some answers.
Book cover of Loewen's "Lie My Teacher Told Me."
To begin, the pervasiveness of this misconception is rooted in the American education system itself. Beginning in grade school, American history textbooks argue the case that slavery was an important, but perhaps not the most important driver of the war. When it is discussed, slavery is wrapped in terminology about states’ rights, differences in economic infrastructures, and cultural divergences. I have yet to see a public education textbook that wraps slavery in terminology about racism, oppression, or systemic white privilege. The Texas State Board of Education, which arguably sets the standard for what school children around the country learn about American history, recently adopted a set of proposed changes which “watered down” the role of slavery
in leading to the Civil War, putting it behind “sectionalism” and “states’ rights” as the primary causes. In fact, it’s fairly typical to see slavery listed third among the causes of the Civil War, often behind some combination of taxation, political and legal rifts, cultural differences, and always: states’ rights. This pattern among mainstream American history textbooks has been well documented by James Loewen
Relegating slavery as third among a variety of other causes creates a complex social mythology that simultaneously acknowledges and buries the significance of racialized slavery in our past and present. The idea that a significant segment of our population would wage such devastating violence primarily for the preservation of an institution that is now widely abhorred as inhumane and barbaric violates our modern sensibilities and forces us to confront the continuing legacy of that institution in our daily lives. I find that confronting this mythology is particularly difficult for white students with Southern heritage who must reconcile modern attitudes about slavery and racism with a family history which for many includes an ancestor who fought and perhaps died for the cause of the Confederacy. Grappling with the racism embedded in that cause and its ongoing effects is far more difficult than shifting the focus of the cause to something more mundane and less controversial, such as disagreements over taxes and economic systems. Giving lip service to slavery as a cause, but the simplest, most easily understood cause, further entrenches the social mythology that our society is finished with racism, that we’ve moved on and its dangers no longer affect us.
How do we challenge this social mythology in the classroom?
For those of us in higher education classrooms, battling for a critical revision of American history textbooks is certainly a worthy, although daunting task. Educators in college classrooms, however, must teach the students who walk in their door, not a future generation of students educated with a different set of textbooks. Students enter college classrooms with a set of entrenched ideas they have accumulated from these textbooks. Yet few come in with the critical thinking skills necessary to turn those ideas on their heads, equipped to examine the significance and meaning of what they have learned, and how and why they have learned it. It is the job of higher education to provide students with the skills and opportunity to take charge of their own learning.
Rather than offer students a contradicting set of propositions to the ones they already accumulated, educators can encourage students to critically examine their own learning and come to their own conclusions. One way to disentangle the social mythology surrounding slavery and the Civil War is to offer students an opportunity to see for themselves what drove political decision-making among our leaders, and what inspired ordinary people to follow them. Using primary documents, educators and students can examine the reasons leaders cited to justify this war. Given that wars need widespread social support, leaders direct their public declarations about the necessity of war toward these segments of the population. This information is available to us, and it should be the first place we direct our students to look to understand the causes of the war. I have recently started a collection of these publically declared justifications
, and I am making them available online.
What can Civil War primary documents reveal?
Certainly disputes about economic systems, legal codes, and states’ rights are mentioned, but in the full context of these documents it becomes patently clear that it was differences in slave and non-slave economies, laws about the obligation of Northern states to return escaped slaves to their owners, and states’ rights to determine the legal status of black people that drove Southern states to secede, setting off the deadliest conflict in American history. In other words, it was racialized slavery that caused the Civil War. Take, for example, South Carolina’s declaration of secession
, which in citing the rights outlined in the Constitution, declared that:
| || |
“The right of property in slaves was recognized by giving to free persons distinct political rights, by giving them the right to represent, and [burdening] them with direct taxes for three-fifths of their slaves; by authorizing the importation of slaves for twenty years; and by stipulating for the rendition of fugitives from labor. We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assumed the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery...”
Here, although economic differences, legal issues, and states’ rights are all cited as reasons for secession, each of these explanations is specifically framed in terms of slavery.
This passage also provides a very useful teaching moment: I have often heard students point out that the cause of the war could not really be slavery because most Northern leaders did not become anti-slavery until much later in the war, for example, Lincoln did not issue the Emancipation Proclamation until 1863. However, this document provides evidence that in 1861, Southern leaders were citing Northern condemnation of the institution as a reason for secession. Here is an opportunity to provide students with information about the role of abolitionists and the anti-slavery movement in the war, and the role of social movements more broadly in creating social and political change.
"Outrage," February 2, 1837 Handbill, Rare Book and Special Collections Division (41), Library of Congress
Similar justifications are provided in the Mississippi, Texas, and Georgia secession declarations as well. After stating that “we should declare the prominent reasons which have induced our course,” the Mississippi
document immediately states that:
| || |
“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world....These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.”
Here again is a clear and inextricable link between slavery and economic differences as the primary driver of the war. The first reason given by Georgia
in its secession declaration is that “For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery.” Texas
similarly argues the need to separate from the Union and join the Confederacy because within the Confederacy, Texas can exist “maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery– the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits– a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time.” This specific link between the necessity of slavery “to promote [Texas’] welfare, insure domestic tranquility and secure more substantially the blessings of peace and liberty to her people,” and racial oppression and privilege creates an opportune moment to engage students with a discussion about white privilege. The “servitude of the African to the white race” and the benefits this institution held for whites was clearly at the forefront of the minds of those Texans who wrote this document, and they were willing to risk a great deal to preserve it. Despite the extent to which students acknowledge slavery as the central cause of the Civil War, many still struggle with connecting this piece of American history to the broader American political and social system. Jefferson Davis, the Mississippi legislator who became the president of the Confederacy, repeatedly makes the connection between the cause of the Confederacy and the revolutionary accomplishments of the founding fathers. In his farewell address to Congress, Davis declares that Mississippi is justified in its secession because “She has heard proclaimed the theory that all men are created free and equal, and this made the basis of an attack upon her social institutions; and the sacred Declaration of Independence has been invoked to maintain the position of the equality of the races.” In both Davis’ first and second inaugural addresses, he repeatedly connects the cause of the Confederacy in maintaining the racial structure that undergirded slavery as part of the revolutionary legacy of the founding fathers. These passages provide an opportunity to engage students in a discussion about the historical legacy of the revolution and the role it played in shaping the Civil War, and consequently, the historical legacy of the Civil War and the role it plays in our own time.
Certainly the causes of the Civil War, as all wars, were complex. They involved numerous actors and many interest groups. Undoubtedly, slavery was not the driving motivation behind every individual Southern soldier’s actions. However, slavery was the most significant factor at the institutional and structural level in that it was the driving force behind the Southern states’ decision to secede and it held a place of utmost prominence in the minds of Southern leaders when making decisions they knew would lead to war. It matters that students learn this. Having students learn that the central and primary driver of the Civil War was slavery does not simplify its causes, rather it forces students to think about and understand the complexities of racialized slavery as a foundation of our current society. Providing students with the opportunity to interpret primary source documents firsthand—to read the actual words of Union and Confederate leaders—can help students come to their own understanding of what caused the Civil War and what this legacy of racialized slavery means for our society today.
Molly Clever Molly Clever is a PhD candidate at the University of Maryland. Her research projects include an analysis of justifications for war as well as a database of war-related deaths. Her blog, teachwar, provides tips, strategies, and resources for teaching about war.
Last semester was a risk. It's always a risk, because we always try new things, every semester refining techniques, every semester looking for new ways to convey what we have to share. But for whatever reason, in the fall of 2012 in my sociology intro course I felt like trying something truly new. I blended my regular non-fictional sociological readings—chapters of textbooks, excerpts from works of social theory, peer-reviewed articles—with works of science fiction and fantasy.
It's worth pointing out that the use of fiction in the context of a sociology classroom isn't new. The Wire
, just as one example, has become such a go-to for many instructors covering social inequality that there have been entire courses constructed around it. But, as I make explicit in my syllabus, I'd argue that speculative fiction allows us to engage in a kind of theoretical work that other forms of fiction don't.
Fritz Lang's Metropolis could inspire students to think critically about social class and gender.
Speculative fiction—both science fiction and fantasy, as well as all permutations in between—has always been implicitly sociological. Its earliest forms deal with technology and science, with magic and legend, but all of these really serve as ways to talk about other things. In The Time Machine
, HG Wells is arguably just as concerned with the future organization of human society as he is with the book's namesake. Robert Heinlein explores political power and social change by positing futures in which enfranchisement is linked to military service, and technically-expert revolutionaries carry out a bloodless coup on a colonized moon. Ursula LeGuin, Octavia Butler, and Joanna Russ theorize gender by inviting us to consider worlds in which our binary construction of gender no longer applies.
In fact, I’ve argued before elsewhere
that speculative fiction contains conceptual tools that “literary” fiction usually lacks, and suffers for the lacking. Imagining the future is always a part of sociology, even when we have difficulties in being a traditionally “predictive” science. This is especially true in a world within which our relationship with technology is ever-more difficult and complex. As I wrote in another post
pushing for the place of fiction in theoretical work: Speculative fiction, among other genres, allows us to explore the full implications of our relationship with technology, of the arrangement of society, of who we are as human beings and who we might become as more-than-human creatures. It’s useful not because it’s expected to rigidly adhere to the plausible but
because it’s liberated from doing exactly that: it’s free to take
what-if as far as it can go. This differentiates it from futurism, which is bound far more to trying to Get It Right and therefore so often fails to do exactly that. William Gibson didn’t set out to imagine right now, but he was able to get far closer to it than a lot of futurists precisely because he wasn’t subjected to the pressure to do so. I think it was far more chance than any temporally piercing insight, but when we can imaginatively go anywhere, we usually get somewhere.
And then we can look back on what we imagined before, and it can tell us a great deal about how we got to where we are now and where we might go in the future
--and where we
need to go.
So I invite my students to imagine. I think we understand concepts more fully when we can work through their implications in unfamiliar contexts, when we can tweak this or that setting and see what results. It works in a mutually-strengthening dynamic: We arrive at a fuller understanding of something when we can do the above, and when we’re able to, we can demonstrate greater theoretical competence in a way that goes above and beyond the regurgitation of information. Good storytelling is by nature good critical thinking. You simply can’t have one without the other. And good analysis of story necessarily follows.
"So I invite my students to imagine...Good storytelling is by nature good critical thinking. You simply can't have one without the other. And good analysis of story necessarily follows."
The result of this is usually mixed, and I expected it to be going in; in fact, I expected a poorer reaction than the one I’ve been getting. Some students seem resistant, or at least puzzled. Some seem excited by the opportunity to do something unusual and unexpected in a class within which they may not have know what to expect to begin with. In class discussions, I ask them to consider a central question from which all other questions about the readings proceed: Why did I assign this? What is it about this particular story that speaks to anything we’ve learned? What can it tell us?
Fiction in general - and speculative fiction in particular - is not merely escapism. It’s conceptual voyaging. It’s pushing beyond what we know into what we can grow to understand. Myths and legends are all-too-often dismissed as untrue
; what this attitude fails to recognize is that the deepest, most foundational stories are persistent precisely because the best of them are vectors for the most profound elements of who we are, of how we understand ourselves to be, of where we imagine we might go. These things may be harmful, they may reproduce things that we find undesirable, but we need to understand them on their own terms before we can act.
In my course, I characterize most forms of social inequality to be based on myth - on origin stories. We’re better than these other people. This thing is bad. This is what it means to live a good life. This is what justice looks like.
And when we find the worlds these myths create to be undesirable, we depend on the ability to imagine the alternatives to work toward
Sometimes understanding these alternatives involves spaceships and robots. Or it can. And sometimes it’s better when it does.
My Sociology Intro syllabus containing my fiction readings can be found here
. Currently I’m teaching an Intro to Social Problems course that follows this model very closely, and contains most of the same readings. Dig Deeper. Consider drawing from the following films for your next sociology class.
- Metropolis (1927) - gender, social class
- Blade Runner (1982) - definitions of humanity, gender, slavery, stratification
- Brazil (1985) - gender, rationalization, social class
- Aliens (1986) - capitalism, gender
- Gattaca (1997) - bodies, disability, identity
- Princess Mononoke (1999) - gender
- The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003) - gender, race
- Children of Men (2006) - gender, immigration, race, reproductive politics
- District 9 (2009) - postcolonialism, race
- Avatar (2009) - postcolonialism, race
Sarah Wanenchak is a fourth year PhD candidate at the University of Maryland and writes speculative fiction under the pseudonym Sunny Moraine.
AMC’s award-winning zombie apocalypse drama The Walking Dead is currently in its third season of undead annihilation. The show’s protagonists are a motley crew of survivors, led by Sheriff Rick Grimes, who have beat the odds to stay alive in the Georgia wilderness. In this post, Ami Stearns pits the human group as communists employing classic Marxist tenets to avoid being eaten by the cold-blooded symbols of capitalism.
“Society suddenly finds itself put back into a state of momentary barbarism; it appears as if a famine, a universal war of devastation, had cut off the supply of every means of subsistence; industry and commerce seem to be destroyed…”
Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto
The Face of Capitalism?
That sound of a twig snapping in the forest? For the small band of survivors on The Walking Dead
lead by Sheriff Rick Grimes, it’s much more likely a zombie staggering along in search of a fresh human snack than it is a deer or a squirrel. Zombies, called “walkers” in this high-adrenaline drama, can only be stopped with a bullet to the head or a swift decapitation. In this world, letting down your guard or relaxing your weapon means you might be the next item on the walker’s lunch menu. With episode after episode featuring an exponentially increasing zombie population, it’s a miracle that any humans are able to survive at all. Or is it a miracle?
I’m a sociologist, so I did what sociologists do; I analyzed the zombiepocalypse
The survival tactics of Grimes’ warm-blooded group in The Walking Dead
can be viewed through the lens of Marxist theory. Without complete cooperation, shared responsibility, and equal allocation of assets, the entire fate of the human race would be doomed. The zombies embody the classic Marxist critiques of capitalism. The heartless creatures mindlessly devour resources (i.e. human brains) in the same way that capitalism pursues profit for its own sake. In case you’ve been holed up in the woods preparing for the next pandemic (hint…it’ll be zombies!), here’s a quick overview of Marx’s Communist Manifesto
In the mid-1800s, Karl Marx wrote The Communist Manifesto
within the context of the Industrial Revolution. The epic struggle of zombies versus humans in The Walking Dead
can help illustrate the principles of each orientation. Capitalism, according to Marx, reached into the far corners of the globe to dominate markets, exploit workers, and destroy local culture. The zombies in The Walking Dead
have completely overtaken urban Atlanta, and it’s not long before hoards of walkers begin pillaging the surrounding small towns and countryside as well. The zombies symbolize capitalism’s insatiable need to constantly expand, exploiting (or feeding on, more appropriately) people to reach its end goal, which is merely to sustain itself.
The main idea of Marx’s Communist Manifesto
is the elimination of private property. Grimes and the survivalists must keep on the move to stay a step ahead of the zombies, so claiming any property as private would be futile. They inhabit campgrounds, a farmhouse, and a prison as shared, communal property, abandoning shelter and moving on when threatened.
Marx also advocates abolition of the family as another principle in The Communist Manifesto
. Although a few family units are represented on the show, the members of the group care for one another communally. One character recently stated that the survivors are his family. A communist society, Marx says, will cause differences and antagonisms to diminish. We see this is true among Grimes’ community of survivors. The characters who have shown intolerance toward one another due to race or gender present a danger for the group’s safety and have been eaten by (or left to be eaten by) zombies. The desire for profit is absent among the group, as it would be absent among a communist society. Instead, survivors rely on one another to meet basic needs. Finally, not only does money never change hands, but it has become completely obsolete in this society. The Walking Dead’s
human survivors versus zombie dynamic illustrates some of the basic principles in Marx’s The Communist Manifesto
. Theory can sometimes seem dry and undead, but viewing a popular show through a sociological lens can help bring theory to life.Dig Deeper:
Ami StearnsAmi Stearns is a graduate student at the University of Oklahoma and is interested in the sociology of literature, sociological and feminist theory, female deviance, and women's reproductive rights.
- Could the zombies and human survivalists in The Walking Dead be interpreted with a different sociological theory?
- How have communist or socialist groups been presented in the past in American society?
- Can the communal survival tactics used by the survivors on The Walking Dead be as successful in a larger scale context?
- Zombie themes have been prevalent lately in pop culture. Have you seen the movies Zombieland or Warm Bodies? Can these movies also be interpreted with Marxist theory?
In this essay Jason Eastman, Editor-in-Chief of SociologySounds, explores the value-added by music videos when instructors use song to teach sociological concepts.
SociologySounds is a website that helps educators find sociological music to play in their classes.
Fittingly, The Buggle’s "Video Killed the Radio Star
" was the first video played on MTV. While the song lyrics explain how the beginning of television marked the end of radio’s golden age, its more general, Frankfurt School-like critique about how technology inevitably changes aesthetic expression was symbolically perfect for this milestone in popular culture. Theodor W. Adorno
, the leading musicologists of the first generation Frankfurt School and almost every punk rocker since thought new technologies that diffuse culture undermined the ability of music (and art more generally) to achieve its essential social function: inspiring audiences to critically assess and hopefully better understand themselves and their social reality—oftentimes by connecting our emotional and rational selves to the larger social and institutional processes we experience collectively.
"Video Killed the Radio Star" (painting, 2010) by #_# ARGADOL (Artist)
Both the critical theorist and the punk rocker in me will always be a little leery of the nexus between music and economics. Also, the musician in me also knows no technology will ever surpass the collective experience of hearing music at a live performance—when an audience watches and hears a musician create an emotive expression that only you and the limited people around you will ever experience as an interconnected, harmonious group when all the sounds, beats, melodies, tones, and timbers come together and then disappear just as fast as they were created (although I do write on SociologySounds
that Billy Joel’s video and song for “Piano Man
” comes close).
On the one hand, fears that technology will undermine the expressive ability of music are not entirely misplaced—especially because, as the Frankfurt School pointed out, the economic or political control of communication technology often equates to control of expression (and I recognize there is a lot of problematic tripe finding its way to listeners’ ears these days). Yet on the other hand, throughout the last century every new technology that musicians and music scholars originally feared—from records, to radio, to video, to Napster, to whatever is created today—some pioneering artist is able to effectively incorporate in their musical expressions.
So while the goal of SociologySounds
is to coordinate the sociological community’s effort to extract songs’ capacity to inspire critical assessment of social reality, we regularly come across musicians who enhance their recorded musical messages with video. In fact, as a collection of audience-submitted music that sociology instructors can use in their classrooms, the site is not only of songs but also of music videos that undermine the Frankfurt School’s fear that technology denigrates cultural expression. In fact, many of these videos help songs communicate these critical theorists’ more general argument that capitalism is not only alienating, but modern economics fetters our progress toward achieving an enlightened modernity.
Fittingly, before I became Editor-in-Chief of SociologySounds
, the very first song I submitted was Bad Religion's “American Jesus
,” which I use to teach Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic
because not only do the lyrics describe the entanglement of religious morality and capitalism, but also because the video is sociologically insightful by depicting people going about their daily lives, seemingly unaware they are carrying large crosses (e.g., the Christian-based American Individualism) on their backs. Strangely, when the song "American Jesus" first came out in 1993, I was hesitant to buy it as, like most 15-year-old punkers at that time, I was angered my musician-heroes (one of whom is lead singer Greg Graffin who inspired me to my own Ph.D. with his graduate work at Cornell) signed with a major label and started making videos. Yet now, this song and video better explains both the social-psychological and the cultural aspects of American individualism to my undergraduate students than any passage I can read from the Dialectic of Enlightenment
"So while the goal of SociologySounds is to coordinate the sociological community’s effort to extract songs’ capacity to inspire critical assessment of social reality, we regularly come across musicians who enhance their recorded musical messages with video."
Once I became Editor-in-Chief, the first song submission we received also has a video that exposes the alienation in capitalism that was the foremost concern of the Frankfurt School. While “Cats in the Cradle
” is primarily about socialization and the family, it captures one of the most consequential aspects of alienation given how many people sacrifice time with their children to pursue economic success. When preparing this anonymous submission, I was listening to this song for the first time as a father—and I remember thinking how strange at that very moment I was ignoring my infant daughter in order to post a song warning people to be careful about balancing work and families. Perhaps because of what I was feeling at this time, instead of incorporating Harry Chapin’s original song, I linked to Ugly Kid Joe’s version because the accompanying video includes powerful images that look like home movies which actually show, as opposed to just lyrically describing, the mistakes a father made throughout his life.
Scene from Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall"
We’ve received other song submissions that have video accompaniments centered on alienation and capitalism. Just recently Bob Holman noticed we were missing a classic song about socialization and education that has an especially insightful music video from their more expansive rock opera: Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall
.” While the solid and repetitive bass line of the song effectively instills the power of the enforced conformity described by the lyrics, the video also depicts the suppression of free thinking and individuality by showing students uniformly marching into industrial machines and coming out sitting at desks with their faces removed—becoming the nameless, faceless, and mindless robots that first Marx, and then the Frankfurt School, cautioned us not to become.
Of course, since the Frankfurt School assumed all of popular culture was little more than clever propaganda that suppresses consciousness, they would likely be surprised by the amount of songs and videos on SociologySounds
that not only critique but also challenge social convention—especially the ways race, class, and gender influence our lives. Since I am from the northern Appalachians, personally I am drawn to Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road
,” which incorporates historic-looking film to describe how three generations of men were forced to live outside the law because their social class limited opportunity. Nazlı Ökten submitted “Luka
” by Susanne Vega, which highlights how symbolic violence against women perpetuates actual violence by overlapping close-up videos of people with panoramic shots of the city. Dan Hoyt submitted “Double Burger with Cheese
,” a song where Lupe Fiasco incorporates movie scenes to reinforce the lyrics of his song about the construction of Black men via media.
"Of course, since the Frankfurt School assumed all of popular culture was little more than clever propaganda that suppresses consciousness, they would likely be surprised by the amount of songs and videos on SociologySounds that not only critique but also challenge social convention..."
Fiasco’s video is also interesting because modern technologies enable almost anyone to mimic this style of videography by adding their own imagery to songs, thereby self-creating original videos that can be shared world-wide with a brief upload. This means that while SociologySounds
is full of official artist videos, the vast majority of links provided are fans’ uploads of their favorite artists via YouTube videos. A few of these self-created videos are especially insightful, like zelja tebrex’s video interpretation of Rage Against the Machine’s “Ghost of Tom Joad
” which incorporates an immense collection of video from both movies and documentaries that help put this Dust Bowl refugee into the context of our own times. While this practice is far removed from a live musical performance, it does mirror a basic process in which an individual emotional resonance with a song is shared collectively with others—and it is only possible because of new technologies.
In fact, tracing the lineage of this video illustrates how new medias and technologies can enhance rather than undermine the communicative power of art to collectively diffuse a message that is also individually meaningful. Tom Joad was first a character in Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath,” which inspired the Woody Guthrie song “The Ballad of Tom Joad,” which became the basis of both John Ford’s film adaptation of the novel, and Bruce Springsteen’s song “Ghost of Tom Joad,” which was then covered by Rage Against the Machine, which was put to images by zelja tebrex on YouTube before it was passed along to SociologySounds
by Josh Greenberg. With each (re)interpretation, an audience-artist critically engaged the expression of their predecessors to make sense of their own contemporary reality, which was uniquely translated into another expression that was then passed along to others.
This sharing of an evolving artistic expression shows that while artists and sociologists often fear new technologies, and that the forms of expression they make possible will undermine the creation of insightful art, nearly the opposite seems to happen. Also, perhaps the most effective way sociology instructors can play a role in diffusing music’s especially powerful critiques of the social world that are both individually meaningful but also communally uniting is simply by exposing students to meaningful songs—and that’s why we at SociologySounds
are quietly exuberated yet also apologetic because we can never seem to keep up with all the great song suggestions passed along to us. Still, if you know of song that can be used to teach sociological ideas, please consider submitting
it to SociologySounds
. We also have a comment section where you can add tips about how the songs already posted can be used in the classroom.Endnote: SociologySounds
was started by Nathan Palmer of SociologySource.org
. In July 2012, Jason Eastman became Editor-in-Chief of SociologySounds
Jason Eastman is Editor-in-Chief at SociologySounds and an Assistant Professor at Coastal Carolina University. He researches how inequality is perpetuated through culture, often by focusing on the construction of identities through rock and country music, including specific bands like The Rolling Stones and an entire subgenre of country devoted to truck drivers.
Over the years of integrating multimedia into my sociology courses, I’ve developed a number of rules of thumb to guide the use of video and video clips in the classroom. Any criticisms, suggestions, and/or additions would be most welcomed.
1. Determine general relevance of video: does it advance learning? Consider such questions as: Does it stimulate students to think about the topic, perhaps in a novel way? Does it appropriately illustrate or amplify? Worst case: it diminishes learning (e.g., might it confuse, frustrate, or talk down to?). Is it appropriate to course, level of learning, and student population?
2. Evaluate video relative to student, university, and community standards. Might students see it as offensive, disparaging, or otherwise objectionable? Note: your point in using it may be exactly to challenge or provoke. However, be aware of possible fall-out. If potential is high that students will be disturbed, it’s crucial to provide meaningful pre-showing discussion, placing the video in learning context.
3. In what venue will students watch video? Will it be in or out of class? (Note: clips integrated into class presentation also can be linked to syllabus for online viewing). This decision might be guided by: a) importance that students see it, in combination with b) length of class time you can reasonably devote to it (if longer than 5 minutes or so, I’ll usually place it online, unless it is critical to share in class).
4. How will it fit into the course relative to evaluation? If viewed out of class, will it be required or optional? If required, will you in some way provide test questions relating to it? If optional, might you attach some kind of extra-credit to motivate students to view it? Note: if video is not indicated on syllabus at beginning of semester will you require viewing? (Some colleges stipulate that the syllabus is a contract. Therefore, extra requirements cannot be imposed after the semester begins. If this is the case, you might list as optional.)
5. If video is to be viewed out of class, how will you orient students to it? Will you provide a set of questions for students to address while viewing? (Note: without such guides, students may not see what you want them to be sure to see.)
Infographic by Edudemic.com
6. If the video is to be viewed out of class, also consider the total length of viewing time you are imposing in relation to the time constraints facing students. Obviously this will vary by student population. You might assign shorter viewing lengths where they are likely to be working at outside jobs.
7. Determine also if there may be difficulties or hardships imposed on students relative to outside viewing. For example, to what extent do students have access to high-speed Internet service?
8. Note that a video may not be available at the time you want to show it (e.g., YouTube clips are particularly vulnerable to removal). Consider either downloading or have in mind an alternative, back-up video.
9. Inform students about technical considerations in using video. For example, at the beginning of the semester, warn about pop-up blockers and also indicate on syllabus necessary software downloads for their computers. Provide links on syllabus to downloads. Tell students importance of infoming you if they’re having troubles with videos. Remind students that links often break and that videos may be taken off Web. Ask them to let you know if video is not available.
10. Review the particular version of the video to be used beforehand. This cannot necessarily be determined by title. If you’ve seen it before, note the version you now have access to may not be same (e.g., YouTube clips are often extensively edited by contributors).Michael V. MillerMichael V. Miller is a sociologist at the University of Texas at San Antonio. His current research in this area focuses on how academic disciplines can best incorporate online multimedia and freeware media-authoring tools into instruction. For further reading, see: “A system for integrating online multimedia into college curriculum” and “Integrating online multimedia into college course and classroom.”
A stereotype is a an exaggerated or distorted generalization about an entire category of people that does not acknowledge individual variation. Stereotypes form the basis for prejudice and discrimination. They generally involve members of one group that deny access to opportunities and rewards that are available to that group. This is a fundamental concept in introductory sociology classes and is an important way to challenge students to address inequality and discrimination.
However, when discussing stereotypes in a classroom, students may be reluctant to discuss their own stereotypes. Videos can be a highly effective way to engage commonly held stereotypes without students feeling singled out. For example, consider the litany of stereotypes (both positive and negative) identified by George Clooney's character in Up in the Air:
In this clip
, Clooney rattles off several stereotypes of people in an airport (including Asians, people with infants, and the elderly). When his co-star (Anna Kendrick) replies "That's racist," Clooney responds with "I'm like my mother. I stereotype. It's faster." This short clip demonstrates stereotyping, which is used to simplify and control judgments about everyday situations. The media is filled with all kinds of stereotypes, such as distorted depictions of working class people
, racist cartoons
, mother's work
, and Muslims
. But what are the effects of stereotypes?
Using a famous quote known as the Thomas theorem
, we can begin to understand the potentially damaging effects of stereoptypes: "if [people] define situations as real, they are real in their consequences." In other words, when people accept stereotypes as true, then they are likely to act on these beliefs, and these subjective beliefs can lead to objective results. For example, think about some common stereotypes
When men (and women) adopt such stereotypical views of feminism, and misperceptions of gender inequality, then they are less likely to support laws and policies that promote gender equality. They are less likely to consider themselves as feminists and join the struggle. Accordingly, these distorted views of women and of feminists can reproduce the objective reality of gendered inequality. People define these situations as real, and the consequences are therefore real.
But how can we challenge students in overcoming stereotypes? One technique comes from our friend, Michael Miller. He commented on Black Folk Don't
, a website that analyzes stereotypes of black people. For example, consider this clip
about stereotypes of black people not tipping:
While the clip only offers anecdotal views, Michael suggested it might serve as "research stimulators" by challenging students to locate data or studies that would support or refute the stereotypical claims. By evaluating stereotypical claims through data, students not only come to refute stereotypes that reinforce social inequality; they can also develop essential research skills, critical thinking skills, and appreciation for data-driven research.
A second way to challenge stereotypes is through comedy. While some comedians reinforce stereotypes
, the good comedians have a great ability to disarm viewers by playing on their stereotypes. Consider this video from In Living Color
| || |
This "Hey Mon" comedy skit
features the hardest working Jamaican family vs. the hardest working Korean family in their battle to outdo each other. The skit highlights and makes fun of the model minority stereotype often applied to West Indian Americans and Asian Americans. It also makes fun of the ways in which each group is stereotyped regarding speech and dress. Viewers may be encouraged to reflect on why the clip is funny and how it draws upon our stereotypes at the same time it challenges them.For other examples of comedians that attack stereotypes, consider examples of ageism in Betty White's show Off their Rockers, a
stand-up performance on Mexican Stereotypes
, and this Daily Show clip
about code speak and the new racism.
Finally, viewers may be encouraged to reflect on stereotypes by hearing from the stereotyped subjects themselves. For example, Sociological Images
shared a video that features 4 African men discussing stereotypes of them in Hollywood movies:
The young African men in this video (oddly, the video does not refer to their home countries but places them together as "African men") discuss how Hollywood movies depict them as evil men with machine guns delivering one-liners, etc. The men continue stating: "We are more than a stereotype. Let's change the perception." We then learn that the men are in college studying clinical medicine and human resource management, that their likes and interests are much like those of young men in the US and around the world. Thus, this media is used to counter more stereotypical portrayals of the men themselves.Paul Dean
In my Sociology of Family course Home Economics
students produce 10-30 second home movies
about any part of their immediate or extended family or community to capture two very specific things: First, the real life tropes
common to this kind of documentary-making
, (i.e., home as a happy place, home as a time of celebration); and then second, the very small truths
about family life which are usually not
documented on video or film, (i.e., loneliness, secrets, fights). And the result, which you can see in this collection of these little films posted here, are not, just simply, an excellent exercise in practicing visual ethnography
or documentary making.
They offer students, (as well as me, their professor), the very rare chance of catching a glimpse of where,
each one of them comes from and returns to, outside of the classroom where we meet every week.
This project was inspired by Alan Berliner's 1986 documentary Family Album,
a clip from which is included below.
Berliner's film was profiled on a 2002 episode of the audio documentary program This American Life,
which also featured excellent essays about the sociology of home movie making by Jonathon Goldstein, Susan Burton and David Sedaris. For a purely audio example of the small truths about family life technology can capture, see also, This American Life, Episode 82, Haunted, Act 1
, featuring the work of Lynette Lyman.*For another post by Audrey Sprenger about making videos in sociology classes, click here.Audrey Sprenger
Karen Sternheimer, USC sociology professor and Everyday Sociology Blog writer and Natasha Zabohonski of W. W. Norton Sociology have a solution: Put methods in context with interesting new research on the fashion industry, hip-hop, families, and more. Below are a series of interviews where notable researchers illuminate the world of research.
How do you make social science research methods come alive for your students?
Questions for students after viewing this interview with Ashley Mears:
- What challenges do you think researchers might face as participant observers?
- How do you think actually working in the modeling industry might help or hinder Mears’ research?
- What are the limitations of the findings of an ethnography like this?
- What world you would immerse yourself in order to do ethnography? What would your main strategies be? What challenges would you anticipate?
Questions for students after viewing this interview with Jooyoung Lee:
- What other challenges might Lee have faced while doing this research?
- How does the researcher’s identity (i.e. race, class, gender) shape the ethnographic process?
- What are the benefits of being an “outsider” while conducting ethnography? Limitations?
Questions for students after viewing this interview with Brian Powell:
- What are the advantages of research using phone interviews? Disadvantages?
- According to Powell, why is the wording of questions so important to consider in survey research?
- What questions that you would ask Americans about family?
Questions for students after viewing this interview with Joel Best:
- What motivated Best to research the myth of Halloween candy poisoning?
- Why do myths persist despite evidence to the contrary?
- What other myths would you investigate? Create a short list, then look for press coverage online to see how news stories have covered this issue. Search online for research on this topic; how do the results of research compare with the news coverage?
See the full “Methods in Context” series of videos here
, and for more videos, activities, and everyday sociology, check out the Everyday Sociology Blog
. Finally, Norton Sociology’s YouTube channel
is another great source of videos, which might be of use in a sociology class.Karen Sternheimer and Natasha Zabohonski
, there are many pedagogical reasons to use video in the classroom. Among these is the very basic and practical reason that videos can liven up traditional lectures through multi-sensory engagement. Students often become stimulated through video and audio, and with heightened attention, experience the material with greater interest and engagement. If this works with our students, why not turn the tables and make assignments that engage us as instructors?
This is what I have done with an assignment (available here
) where students locate and analyze video clips available online. In the assignment, students post their video to a class blog (hosted on Blackboard, my University's course management software) where they summarize the video, define course concepts used in the video, and then explain how the video illustrates the concepts. In the process, students do the same analytical exercise that we do in the classroom with clips found elsewhere on this site. The learning outcomes are for students to 1) become familiar with using and applying sociological concepts; 2) use their sociological imagination to engage familiar content; 3) teach each other through the course blog; and 4) become more critical media consumers. The upside for me is that I have interesting and engaging assignments with which I can evaluate them (of course, the videos must be short to make this a time effective exercise to grade). While I still grade the assignment on many of the same criteria as regular papers, I have found that this assignment is often fun for me, and can be more interesting than grading regular essays.
When students submit videos for this assignment that I feel would be particularly effective in the classroom, I have also edited and posted them in our video database
. For example, in my Sociological Theory course, my students used this video from Food, Inc
(their analysis appears here
) to illustrate Marx's concept of alienation:
Students in my Sociological Theory course have also used a clip from The Aggressives
to illustrate West and Zimmerman's concept of "doing gender." In my Social Problems course, students analyzed a CNN video
to show how race is socially constructed and how racial distinctions (and discrimination) exist within the Black community; another pair of students used a clip from Mona Lisa Smile
to discuss gender roles and inequality. While I have only posted a small number of student videos on this site, I have found that when I do, students are particularly excited about having their work "published"! It also provides me (and you!) with clips to use in future classes.As I have continued to adjust this assignment for different courses, I have tried several different variations that instructors may want to consider if they try out an assignment like this.
Students may work individually or in pairs, or I stagger the assignment over the semester to coincide with topics in sequence, or students may present their videos to the class. More recently, I have required that part of students' grades is to post comments on other students' videos. For additional ideas, refer to this Management Education article
that discusses a similar assignment. My favorite option is for students to create their own video. I once had a pair of students write their own song that illustrated several of Marx's key concepts and they created a fantastic hip-hop video. With the students' permission, I showed the video in class, and afterward the students gave me this note:
"Your presentation of our video in class we are indeed grateful for because in making music, exposure is the essence of being heard. I also would like to thank you for presenting us with the opportunity to freely express our creativity through an assignment such as this one in an academic setting. It is not often that professors and instructors give students an avenue to express true original creativity through work that is assigned in academic curricula. Much thanks, appreciation, and respect again to you professor and to our classmates for their acknowledgement and liking of the video."
In short, my students enjoyed this assignment (as reported in anonymous course evaluations), they tended to meet the assignment's learning outcomes, and it was a fun assignment to grade! If you have experience with similar assignments, please leave us a comment so we know what also has worked (or didn't work) for you. And you may even consider having your students submit their work
to The Sociological Cinema
described his idea for playing music before each class. As Nathan described in his post
, he selected a music relevant for the day's topic and started the song so that it would end at exactly the point in time he wanted to start class. He noted that the music "can pull your students into a discussion, get them to consider controversial issues from new perspectives, and set a tone for a great class." I was totally convinced by this method and employed it throughout my semester of teaching Sociological Theory. I wanted to share some of the songs I used and my experience with it. Here are some of the songs I used:
Earlier this year, Nathan Palmer at the
First Day of Class - The Show Must Go On
(Pink Floyd)Marx (
Alienation) - Working at the Factory
(The Kinks; lyrics
)Marx (Communist Manifesto) - Working Class Hero
(John Lennon; lyrics with video)Marx (Commodity Fetishism) - Comfort Eagle
(Social Facts) - The Times They are A-Changin'
(Bob Dylan; lyrics in video)Durkheim
(Suicide) - Jeremy
(Pearl Jam); Lonely Day
(System of a Down; lyrics in video)Weber
(Authority and Bureaucracy) - Handlebars
(Flobots; lyrics in video)Weber
(Protestant Ethic and Spirit of Capitalism) - Workin' on Leavin' the Livin'
(Modest Mouse) Du Bois (The Veil,
Double Consciousness) - All Black Everything
(Lupe Fiasco; lyrics with video)Omi & Winant (Racial Formation Theory
) - Changes
(Looking Glass Self) - Glory Days
Neo-Marxism (Culture Industry) - Mountains O' Things
Foucault (Disciplinary Power and Surveillance) - Folsom Prison Blues
(Johnny Cash); Big Brother
(Stevie Wonder)Globalization (Global Culture and Consciousness) - Citizen of the Planet
(Alanis Morissette; see more songs here
); Globalization (Imperialism) - Bullet the Blue Sky
(U2; lyrics in video)
Gender - If I Were a Boy
(Beyonce; lyrics in video)Social Movements - Masters of War
(Bob Dylan/Pearl Jam Cover)Social Change - Change is Constant (Son of Nun)Wrapping Up the Semester: Knowledge as Power - Wake Up
(Rage Against the Machine; lyrics in video); My Generation
(Nas & Damien Marley)
And just a few reflections on my experience: Overall my experience doing this was EXCELLENT! It got my students in a good mood to start every class. By timing the song to end exactly at the start of class, I was able to "train" my 95-student class to quiet down on time. It is also important to note that it is important that we--as instructors--start class in a good mood and energetic. The music can help us to do that too! It also provided for an interesting start to the class when I explicitly addressed the song. For example, during one of my days on Marx, I opened with a Tupac song, then started with class "Yes, I just played Tupac to talk about Karl Marx and his ideas about capitalism." Finally, it gave them yet one more way to think about sociological theory as relevant to every day life, and to consider additional sites to practice their sociological imagination. Having done this once, there is no going back! For more ideas for this activity, refer to Nathan's post