The lecture is disappearing. Pictured here is a surgeon's lecture (ca.1900)
The end of the college lecture looms
A paradigm shift, according to Thomas Kuhn
, is a change in the basic assumptions or ruling paradigms within a scientific discourse. At first, anomalies begin to appear and accumulate until a crisis occurs and the ideas of old begin collapsing under the weight of unresolvable contradictions. I want to argue that a kind of paradigm shift is currently underway in regards to the usual pedagogies employed in college courses. Fissures have begun to appear in the longstanding pedagogical substructure, but in contrast to Kuhn's model for scientific revolutions, a pedagogical revolution is being hastened, not by anomalous observations, but by the emergence of online education.
Still this revolutionary transformation eludes many of those who work in higher education. After all, t
he experience of students who take online classes appears to be similar to that of their 20th century counterparts. Students must still read, they are still tested, and they still encounter course material that has been organized by an instructor. But the lecture, that standard fixture
of higher education since at least the 12th century, is quietly slipping into history, and its unintended demise is the result of the suite of new online technological capabilities coupled with a growing demand for flexible course schedules.
The Life of the Lecture
Before elaborating on my claim that the lecture is in decline, and before I propose what to do about it, I want to be clear that I think lectures can be incredibly useful features of any course. While the notion of a lecture often calls to mind a static presentation, for me lectures are quintessentially dynamic, live gatherings of students and instructors that take place at particular times and in particular places. Because they are live gatherings, they can facilitate student cooperation, and at the very least, they provide students with a sense that they are a part of something bigger than themselves. While the structure of the lecture promotes a situation where students can openly support and even depend on each other, lectures also provide instructors with the means of pushing back against, say, one student's reductionist views, while paraphrasing another student's insights. And the lecture allows instructors to respond to individual students in real time and in full view of other students, so that each interaction might become a teaching moment for an entire class.
Just as laughter and applause are contagious in packed theaters, so too is student engagement, and like any stage performance, the lecture is a format that allows instructors the ability to dynamically react to their live audience and cultivate this contagious engagement. Articles have been written about how lectures are outdated relics
that do not account for the cognitive limitations of students, Others have written
that lectures are ill-equipped to compete with smart phones, which are far more entertaining. Whether lectures are too cognitively demanding or not entertaining enough depends on how the lecture is structured and what happens at the live gathering. People often forget that lectures are unique among course components in that they allow instructors the ability to react to this infiltration of distracting gadgets. In few places but the live lecture, can instructors effectively monitor and regulate the use of cell phones among students, and only in the lecture can instructors modify their presentations once it becomes apparent that too many of their students are smiling into the LCD displays in their laps.
The Death of the Lecture
Online education is hastening the demise of the live lecture. For some time now online course technologies have allowed students to take classes from the comfort of their homes, and crucially, to do course work at times that do not conflict with their other commitments. Attending a class that meets regularly is a fundamentally different experience than logging in to an online class. It is of course possible to replicate the simultaneity associated with live gatherings by arranging a live video conference with students, but by and large, this strategy undermines much of the scheduling flexibility that has been driving the growth of online education in the first place. If students must be at their computers at particular times each week, then they might just as well agree to meet in a physical classroom.
It should be noted that
the demand for flexible hours is not simply due to clever marketing campaigns from entities like Coursera or the University of Phoenix, but in all likelihood the demand stems from a widespread economic reality: lower paying jobs, longer working hours, and greater debt
. Students are coming to need the flexible hours offered by online education because they are filling their schedules with internships and other activities in a struggle to gain qualifications in an increasingly competitive job market, and they are working longer hours in low paying jobs
in order to deal with the rising cost
of their education.
The Promise of a Video PedagogyHollywood films can promote affective learning
Perhaps more college instructors should follow in the footsteps of Princeton University professor Mitchell Duneier, who turned his back on the MOOC (massive open online course), refusing to support a trend that might lead to state legislators cutting funding to state universities. Perhaps there should be more resistance to online forms of education, but at this juncture, my aim is not to incite a rebellion against online courses or even forestall their development (as if I could!). Instead, I want to conclude by discussing how video can be used to fill the void left by the disappearing lecture, and how it will be an important component in the pedagogies which emerge to address this new online paradigm.
When designing online courses, many instructors take a kind of skeuomorphic approach and set about crafting digital duplications of the classes they once taught in physical classrooms. Physical documents can be replaced by electronic documents, so it is easy to fall victim to the idea that lectures can be handled in a similar manner. Examples abound of instructors who have produced digital videos of themselves delivering their lectures
, but this approach transforms what was once an interaction between instructors and students—and students with each other—into a unidirectional data dump (see Michael Burawoy
, Mitchell Duneier
, and Ann Swidler
). Few other arrangements than a video of a person standing at the front of a room talking will have as much trouble stirring interest and engagement among students.
Digital videos have an important place in online education, but video is capable of so much more than simply recording a person talking. The lecture after all is a live event, so by definition, a recording of it will not suffice anyway. How then should video be used in the online course? How will it fill the void left by the lecture? It only makes sense that instructors who use video capitalize on its unique strengths. In what follows, I conclude by pointing to four key strengths of video, which can be leveraged to facilitate learning among students: 1. Video Can Illustrate Complex and Abstract Ideas
It is no mystery that in any field there are particular concepts and theories students typically struggle to understand. Videos can be incredibly useful for providing students with illustrations and suggesting idioms to aid in making sense of otherwise intangible ideas. For example, rather then simply explaining to the camera the Marxist idea of Capitalism's internal contradictions, it is far more engaging and memorable to show a video
that combines an explanation of Marxist theory with an illustration that unfolds across the properties of a Monopoly game board.
2. Video Helps Visualize Big Data
Sometimes the challenge facing instructors has less to do with explaining abstract concepts and is more about making the findings from big data comprehensible. In many classes, students are bombarded with statistics that often make little sense. Videos can be useful for showing graphs and figures, which place statistics in context by offering comparisons across categories (e.g., race, gender). Videos are particularly useful for contextualizing a number by illustrating how the number has changed over time. Thus rather than simply telling students that life expectancy has increased dramatically in the last 200 years, it is far more effective to show a video
that shows how life expectancy has changed in multiple countries, and rather than showing snapshots from different points in time, video allows instructors to graph these changes as one fluid transformation in global health. 3. Video Can Be Persuasive and Enhance an Instructor's Credibility
Particularly in the humanities and social sciences, instructors sometimes confront students who believe that many of the evidenced-based conclusions presented in the readings and discussed on the message board are little more than academic fantasies. In an age where people have opinions, as well as blogs from where they can publish those opinions, information in textbooks is often regarded with suspicion. Whether this creeping distrust of course information and the way in which it is presented should be welcomed or scorned by instructors, most would agree that gaining the trust of students is important. Video affords instructors the ability to transport expert testimony into a course, thereby giving students the opportunity to hear about a particular phenomenon from someone who has witnessed it first hand, or has at least spent an entire career trying to understand it. For instance, when discussing the torture of detainees who have been indefinitely held at the Guantanamo Bay detention camps, watching a video
that features the testimony of a former detainee is of course informative, but it is also more credible, and in my experience, students will almost instinctively pay closer attention. 4. Video Can Promote Affective Learning
I see the question of how to engage students in course material as really a question about how to tap into students' emotions, and on this score, video can be very useful. Hollywood feature films, television shows, and documentaries can be incredibly entertaining, and one reason is because they are the bearers of highly evolved narrative formulas, each specifically designed and tested to captivate audiences. Movies are adept at engaging people's emotions, so it is not surprising that people are often consumed by the characters, costumes, and trivia of their favorite movies. Tying together scenes from popular films and class content can be a very reliable way to increase student engagement. For example, rather than speaking an elegant explanation of culture into a camera, a sociology instructor might do better to assign a three-minute excerpt from the 2006 film The Devil Wears Prada,
which lures the audience into feeling embarrassed for a fashion intern who fails to appreciate how the cultural logic of the fashion industry shaped her own decision to wear a frumpy blue sweater.
Depending on the course and the way an instructor situates a video, one could undoubtedly list other strengths of video. My aim here is not to provide an exhaustive account of video's strengths but to simply point out that the usual way college classes are taught is undergoing a fundamental shift—far more consequential than most are aware. Like it or not, the train appears to be leaving the station, and online education is building an inertia that cannot be simply rolled back. Among the issues left to be debated is what to do about the loss of the lecture. As I have argued, even though video can never hope to replace the lecture, it will play a prominent role in online education.
I am very grateful for the many insights I have gleaned from conversations with Valerie Chepp, Paul Dean, and Michael V. Miller, regarding the strengths of video as a pedagogical tool.
Students use an iPad in the classroom. From Apple's website.
Apple has long considered itself a renegade, a breaker of conventions, and a change-maker, and education has been a realm in which it seeks to have a revolutionary impact. Apple is well-known for its long-standing presence in classrooms, and its executives maintain, “Education is in our DNA
Apple is proud of its relationships with schools, as shown by the company’s robust education section
of their website. While researching Apple’s education customers for my previous post, “The Top 10 Things You Didn’t Know About Apple
,” one customer profile, which includes a short film, caught my attention.
The “Apple in Education Profile” of Renda Fuzhong (RDFZ) Xishan
in Beijing, China, explains that a revolution in education is underway in the country, thanks in part to use of Apple’s MacBook Pro and iPad in the school’s 7-9th grade classrooms. Breaking from what is described as the dysfunctional Chinese educational model focused on “core knowledge” and “rigorous testing,” with the help of Apple products the school has implemented a successful new model that promotes “personal growth, creativity, and innovation.”
The description of the school’s “experimental” model of education resonates with contemporary American values and trends present in Apple’s marketing. In my study with Gabriela Hybel of over 200 Apple commercials that have aired in the US since 1984, we found that one of the key themes that courses through them is that Apple products allow their users to cultivate and express intellectual and artistic creativity. The video profile
below of the school and its program resonates with this theme, and provides an inspiring take on the what Apple means to the youth of China (Note: Please watch the video! Doing so will allow you to see for yourself the great contrast in how students from different backgrounds experience Apple
As I read the profile of RDFZ and watched the video about the school
, I couldn’t help but think that this did not seem to be an accurate depiction of what Apple means to the youth of China. While I certainly think it is great for these students that they are receiving a top-notch and technologically innovative education, a little research revealed that RDFZ Xishan is considered the most prestigious school in Beijing. While it is described by Apple as a public school, it is the sister school
of Phillips Academy
in Massachusetts and Phillips Exeter Academy
in New Hampshire–both exclusive private
schools. The middle school is a part of the RDFZ high school, which funnels students to the most elite universities
in China, the UK, and the US. It is also a part of the G20 Schools
, a collection of elite and mostly private secondary schools around the world. In short, this school serves the children of Beijing’s wealthy elite–a minuscule portion of China’s youth.
When we think about what Apple means to the youth of China, we have to consider not only the privileged few who might benefit from using the company’s products in the classroom, but the hundreds of thousands of young workers assembling Apple products in factories throughout the country. Their experience of Apple is vastly different from that of the students of RDFZ Xishan. A recent report
from China Labor Watch
, which details numerous violations of Chinese labor laws and the employment of minors at Apple suppliers, makes this fact shockingly clear.
This video, published on China Labor Watch’s YouTube channel
, showcases labor violations at three Pegatron
facilities in China: Pegatron Shanghai where the “cheap” iPhone is in production; Riteng
Shanghai, a Pegatron subsidiary where Apple computers are assembled; and AVY
Suzhou, another subsidiary of Pegatron that is producing parts for the iPad. China Labor Watch sent “undercover investigators” into these facilities and ultimately identified 36 violations of labor laws, including regular and forced overtime (far over China’s legal limit of a total of 49 hours per week), regular unpaid labor of up to 14 hours per week, lack of safety training, and having to stand for over 11 hours at a time.
Importantly, they found about 10,000 underage and student workers employed across the three sites, comprising nearly 15 percent of the total labor force of 70,000. While China labor law stipulates that workers under the age of 18 must be provided certain protections not afforded adult workers, the researchers found that underage workers experienced the same treatment as all other workers, including staying in over-crowded dormitories with 8-12 people per room, and having limited access to the few group showers for hundreds of people.
Hundreds of young people seek work at Pegatron Shanghai. Published in CLW’s July 29, 2013 report.
Published in CLW’s July 29, 2013 report.
The report from China Labor Watch points out that Apple claims in its Supplier Responsibility Reports
that it does not tolerate these legal violations at its suppliers, and that it has corrected most of them throughout its supply base. For instance, Apple claims, “We don’t tolerate underage labor. Our code requires our suppliers to provide special treatment to juvenile workers.”
The report from China Labor Watch points out that Apple claims in its Supplier Responsibility Reports
that it does not tolerate these legal violations at its suppliers, and that it has corrected most of them throughout its supply base. For instance, Apple claims, “We don’t tolerate underage labor. Our code requires our suppliers to provide special treatment to juvenile workers.”
Published in CLW’s July 29, 2013 report.
However, the CLW researchers found this to be overwhelmingly untrue. Further, they found that many underage workers are student “interns” forced to work by their schools, they receive lower pay than the average worker because of this, and often have to pay the school and their teachers fees for the “opportunity.” The report also notes, “Many students are required to work at the factories despite the production work being unrelated to their studies. For example, a Gansu student at Pegatron studying early education was required to work on the production line.”
Through my research with Tara Krishna into Apple’s Chinese supply chain I have found that the problem of student interns is not particular to these Pegatron sites, but is a systemic problem in China that has been folded into Apple’s supply chain and profit structure. While this has not been covered by mainstream media outlets in the US, Chinese media and scholars have been reporting on the problem for years, particularly at Foxconn facilities. Sociologists Pun and Chan report
China’s pro-growth economic policy pressures heads of schools to funnel students into low-wage “internships”. Xiaotian Ma, in a piece titled “Interns Behind the iPhone 5” for China’s Southern People Weekly
wrote that some schools threaten to withhold degrees from college students who leave their internships (Note: This story was downloaded from the internet by my Chinese research assistant but is no longer available online. I will happily forward a digital copy to anyone who wishes to read it.
). A report from Shanghai Daily cited on CNet
in September 2012 states that students from universities were driven to and forced to work in exploitative conditions at a Foxconn factory producing iPhones because the site was experiencing a labor shortage just before the release of the iPhone 5.
Of course, Apple is hardly the only company working with suppliers who use underage and forced labor. Foxconn sites producing Nintendo gaming consoles have been found to have workers younger than 16 years old
. Given documentation of extensive labor violations throughout the technology sector
in China, it stands to reason that this is a systemic problem. In 2000 child laborers were estimated by the International Labour Organization
to make up as much as 20 percent of China’s labor force
. Most feel compelled to leave school and work because their families live in poverty.
Further, this problem extends beyond factory walls into the social fabric of Chinese society. For the majority of China’s youth Apple and other booming tech companies do not signal a heightened educational experience nor an economic boom, but rather the scattering of communities and closure of rural schools
as residents of villages are driven off by the construction of new factories, and the neglect and desperate solitude of China’s 60 million “left-behind kids”
whose parents have left villages for work in urban production zones.
The principle of RDFZ Xishan is right when he says in the celebratory video hosted on Apple’s education website, “The future is something we create.” For the wealthy, privileged students at the prestigious school, Apple products are no doubt helping to create a future of high social status and economic security. But, for the majority of China’s youth, whether underage workers, student “interns”, left-behind children, or kids whose rural communities have been displaced for factory development, the future that we are collectively creating for them through our consumption of these products is a bleak one. Apple can do better, and so can we as a global society. Nicki Lisa Cole, PhD Nicki Lisa Cole, PhD is a lecturer in sociology at Pomona College in Claremont, CA. A committed public sociologist, Nicki studies the connections between consumer culture and labor and environmental issues in global supply chains. You can read more of her writing at her blog, 21 Century Nomad, and learn more about her research and academic work at her website.
Being embedded in the structures and culture of one’s society can make it more difficult to utilize the sociological imagination. I believe this is especially true in the U.S. where many of our institutions and values focus on the individual—earning individual grades throughout years of schooling; promoting our individual characteristics to gain employment, awards, and access to higher education; relatively high levels of privacy; a historical focus on leading individuals in the success of collective action (e.g., Rosa Parks); etc.
I have found that teaching students to understand and utilize the sociological imagination--the ability to see the relationship between one’s individual life and the effects of larger social forces—is aided by exposing them to different social structures and cultures. While study-abroad programs are ideal for experiencing this first hand, we can also bring other cultures into the classroom through film, photographs, and students’ existing experiences.
Marriage is one of my favorite topics to teach this intersection between individual biography and history. And there are several films or video clips about this topic in other cultures. The first is The Women’s Kingdom
. It is available in two different lengths—9:36 or the full-length 20:00 (great for flexibility in the classroom) on the PBS Frontline website. It is also available in various places
The film investigates the matriarchal society in the southwest provinces of China known as the Mosuo. Here, the family is structured around a mother’s extended family and marriages (as we know them) seem rare. Procreation occurs in what the West would see as more casual relationships. Children are raised with assistance from their maternal aunts and uncles, not their biological fathers. Using the sociological imagination, we see that this type of family structure is only even available to a culture where the extended family remains more intact and geographically proximate than the typical, more mobile and geographically disparate families of the U.S.
"Marriage is one of my favorite topics to teach this intersection between individual biography and history."
I also have found it effective to have a discussion about what age students did get or imagine getting married. It usually averages out in the late 20s. When I ask why, students refer to the desire to finish school and get their careers well under way. So do we marry for love or are we only open to love when our economic conditions are “right”? Using the sociological imagination we understand that our more modern economy (social structure) requires greater training (or at least greater credentialing) which equates into more schooling and often the pursuit of advanced degrees for both men and women. There is more great data on marriage trends in the U.S. available from the Pew Research Center
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Another video that exposes students to different cultural norms around marriage is a 5:19 story by CNN on fraternal polyandry
, or two brothers marrying the same wife. Be sure to ask the students to watch for the structural reasons that drive this form of marriage. By seeing the “difference” in other cultures and thinking sociologically, we can become more aware of the social structures that strongly guide our seemingly individual decisions—like whom to marry, if at all.
Lastly, there is an interesting video of a National Geographic
photographer and researcher discussing child marriage throughout the world, entitled Too Young to Wed?
. It contains reflections on their behalf about why it still exists, how hard it is to change, and who’s place is it to change it—plenty to get the sociological imagination fired up and working, of course with your guidance as a teacher.
I usually pair a selection of readings from the Massey
reader from W.W. Norton, Readings for Sociology
with this class period. In the 2012 edition, a portion of Mills’ The Sociological Imagination makes up chapter 2. I also pair this early in the semester with chapter 3 from that same reader, Durkheim’s argument about social facts. In many ways, using the sociological imagination is the ability to see social facts, so these two chapters really complement each other and build a strong foundation for the rest of the term. Of course you could find both of these readings in other sources as well--Durkheim’s is online
. Finally, I get the students started thinking about marriage using their sociological imagination by reading a piece from Stephanie Coontz
, “The Radical Idea of Marrying for Love” (from Marriage, a History
), chapter 38 in that edition.
Our broader educational system does not ask people to think sociologically very often. It was the UK’s Margret Thatcher that said, “There is no such thing as society” (see the full quote
). Students need some help and some practice seeing the world this way and I have found these films help them do just that.
Teach well, it matters.
Todd Beer is an Assistant Professor at Lake Forest College. His research and teaching interests include globalization, social movements, Sub-Saharan Africa, climate change, environmental sociology, inequality, and culture, among others. His blog, SOCIOLOGYtoolbox, is a collection of tools and resources to help instructors teach sociology and build an active sociological imagination.
In this blog post, sociologist Jason Eastman illustrates how the animated television series
South Park can serve as an effective and engaging sociological teaching tool, and he shares four episode-based exercises (each with printable worksheets) that instructors can use to teach the sociological concepts of inequality, socialization, theories of self, and reification.
A survey of sociological teaching journals implies that films are one of the most popular video teaching tools (Curry 1985; Deflem 2007; Demerath 1981; Fisher 1992; Groce 1992; Harper and Rogers 1999; LeBlanc 1997; Loewen 1991; Malcom 2006; Papademas 2002; Pendergrast 1986; Pescosolido 1990; Smith 1982; Tolich 1992; Valdez and Halley 1999).
An explanation of this popular South Park meme can be found here: http://thefw.com/and-its-gone-meme-of-the-day/
Yet, the literature also documents how lengthy running time of films creates challenges when using movies to teach. Instructors must show films across different class sessions or course sections (Burton 1988), use them only during special ‘mini-terms’ with extended class periods (Maynard 1971), have movies viewed by students in conjunction with specially arranged showings (Tan and Ko 2004; Tipton and Tiemann 1993), or assign movies to students as homework (Livingston 2004). Time constraints are compounded given the need for after-discussions that highlight the sociological significance of media and ensure teaching with popular culture is more than just entertainment for students, but an entertaining way for students to learn.
A possible alternative to films are television shows which typically have more facilitating length for most class meetings (usually 22 or 44 minutes) and require the same basic classroom technology as films: a DVD player and a television, or a computer and projector as many PCs now play DVDs and Blu-rays, and an increasing number of shows are readily available through internet streams. Thus, in considering convenience alone, it is surprising that with the exception of The Sociological Cinema
, the sociological discipline has been somewhat slow to develop and publish ways to incorporate television media into the classroom.
However, in looking past convenience towards substance, sociologists’ lack of incorporating television programming into the classroom is not entirely surprising. Generally, sitcoms and infotainment news programming are far removed from social reality, and many television shows reinforce the troublesome aspects of social reality that many sociologists seek to remedy such as sexism, racism, ethnocentrism, classism, and homophobia (Dines and Humez 2003). And quite ironically, the voyeurism and “game-show” competition of most “reality television” makes the genre especially unreal—or far removed from reality as most experience it (Rose and Wood 2005). Thus, most television is better-suited for sociological critique as opposed to being sociologically insightful.
"A possible alternative to films are television shows which typically have more facilitating length for most class meetings (usually 22 or 44 minutes) and require the same basic classroom technology as films."
However, the teaching literature does describe one exception to the absence of television in sociology classrooms as The Simpsons
, an animated show that is now America’s longest running primetime series is an especially popular teaching aid. For almost a generation now, The Simpsons
taught the world how a TV show that would seemingly be far removed from reality because it is animated as opposed to acted out by real people in real actual places, is actually an especially insightful, artistic platform to show audiences the often illusive, and problematic aspects of the tangible world they live in. For example, Tim Delaney’s (2009) book Simpsonology
illustrates how “the series reveals a great deal about us because so many of the episodes are entwined with the all the social institutions found in society” (31). Todd (2009) explains how the show is useful for environmental sociologists by raising awareness of serious issues through nonthreatening, entertaining imagery like radioactive, three-eyed fish. Scanlan and Feinberg (2000, 2007, 2010) argue the critical social commentary of The Simpsons
can be harnessed to help sociology students actively learn. The Teaching Resources and Innovations Library (TRAILS)
includes a teaching gender activity (Hare 2010) and work-family assignment based on The Simpsons
(Hare and Lennartz 2010). Darren Blakeborough of the University of the Fraser Valley (Ryan 2008) and Berkeley’s Professor Thomas Gold (2008) even went beyond using only isolated examples from the show and offer sociology courses organized entirely around The Simpsons
Academics from other disciplines also use insights from The Simpsons
in ways that can be incorporated into sociology classrooms. Irwin, Conrad and Skoble’s (2001) The Simpsons and Philosophy
points out how the satire and double meaning in the show affords general audiences the means for philosophical reflection, and the text contains sociological-oriented chapters on Karl Marx, sexual politics and the family. Brown and Logan’s (2005) Psychology of the Simpsons
explains how the show helps us look at ourselves in the mirror without “rose colored glasses,” and explores the concepts of identity, alcoholism, sex and gender. Written from a humanities perspective, John Alberti (2004) describes how the essays collected in his edited volume Leaving Springfield: The Simpsons and the Possibility of Opposition Culture
illustrate how the show uses “the traditional sitcom format to ridicule powerful cultural, social and political institutions" (xiv). Looking at both the show as a cultural representation and a social force, Keslowitz’s (2006) The World According to the Simpsons
explains how Americans love the show because we see our own selves in the characters, and it touches many themes of modern life including media, politics, and globalization. Waltonen and Du Vernay (2010), who I remember hearing them play episodes of The Simpsons
from the adjacent classroom while a graduate instructor at The Florida State University, incorporates sections on critical thinking, writing, and culture (along with a thorough review of Simpsons' research) in their text The Simpsons in the Classroom
. Pinsky’s (2007) The Gospel According to the Simpsons
demonstrates how the show offers audiences access to the complex and sometimes contradictory moral teachings of Christianity, and the second edition includes a lengthy afterword exploring religious representation in other cartoon series that have built their own impressive audiences mimicking The Simpsons
. Thus, a show that George H. Bush criticized during the 1992 Republican Convention (Dowd and Rich 1992) for its amorality is now held in high regard by academics across almost every discipline, and audiences all around the world.
Cartoon Sociology & South Park: Moving Beyond The Simpsons
was just the first of what evolved into an entire genre of adult-oriented cartoons critically depicting social reality through humor and satire. For example, FOX broadcasting’s Sunday night “Animation Domination” has been incredibly successful by airing other primetime cartoons that mimic The Simpsons
, including Family Guy
, American Dad!
, Bob’s Burgers
, The Cleveland Show,
(the latter of which has moved to Comedy Central for its closing seasons). Whereas many television sitcoms exaggerate reality in a way that over-emphasizes the comfort and stability of a middle-class existence, animated series highlight the contradictory, controversial and illusive aspects of social life with satirical portrayals of our society and culture that are both comical and therefore accessible, but also astutely insightful and therefore an excellent tool for sociology classrooms. I (2011) published an exercise using another Fox show, King of the Hill
, to teach the concepts of status and role in TRAILS and, like other instructors who have successfully taught entire courses on The Simpsons
, I used multiple cartoon series as the basis of an entire sociology course I called ‘Cartoon Sociology.’
Most of this course I taught revolved around the cartoon South Park
which follows the tradition of The Simpsons
by conveying critiques of social reality through irony and satire.
The series centers around the childhood experiences of four, elementary school boys (Cartman, Kyle, Kenny and Stan) in rural Colorado. South Park has aired on the cable channel Comedy Central since 1997, and because the show is not technically broadcasted, the show is not subject to FCC rules that limit the content of animated series on the major networks. On the one hand, less regulation means the series is famous, or infamous, for presenting incredibly controversial materials but offers especially insightful social critiques that are a mainstay of the animated genre. On the other hand, at times the show is also more vulgar than the cartoons on network television and this leads many to dismiss South Park as grotesque and “lowbrow.”
South Park creators acknowledge the influence of The Simpsons on their own shown in Season 6, Episode 7: "The Simpsons Already Did It.”
The vulgarity makes it challenging for sociology instructors to use South Park
in the classroom because the critical insight is regularly packaged alongside “toilet humor” (I hesitate to use quotation marks there since lavatories, both actual and accidental, are a regular theme on the show). Yet, critics point out how the carnival aspects of the show communicate complex critiques of social, cultural, and political reality; or in other words, the philistine, sophomoric antics might be why, or how South Park so effectively communicates its acute insight. For instance, media critics from both Time
Magazine (Poniewozik 2009) and the New York Times
(Heffernan 2004) applaud South Park
for using morally offensive materials to point out hypocrisy in our supposedly moral social world, or the chasm between the ideals we celebrate as a culture and the actual social practices we engage in. Sixty-Minutes
(Kroft 2011) called the show “scatological as well as philosophical, and every bit as profane as it is profound
.” And, like The Simpsons
, the series inspires edited academic volumes. South Park and Philosophy
(Arp 2007) argues the show “bothers” many viewers because it courageously explores ideas people are uncomfortable confronting. Organized around the thesis that South Park
uses the profane to question the sacred, Taking South Park Seriously
(Weinstock 2008) offers readers access to abstract academic ideas using examples from the show. The creators of South Park
maximize the critical insight found in other animated series because they are always willing to push every boundary in exploring almost everything and anything social scientists study no matter how controversial, uncomfortable, or even taboo those subjects may be. This means the ever growing catalogue of South Park
episodes are a largely untapped resource for outgoing sociology instructors to use (with care) in the classroom.
Season 16, Episode 9 “Raising the Bar” implies shows like Honey Boo-Boo are much more corrosive to our society and culture than anything on South Park.
Still, the grotesque imagery and unabashed confrontation of social taboos in South Park makes the show’s use in classrooms sensitive, controversial, and occasionally problematic. Yet in my experiences, the complications of teaching with South Park are minimal in relation to the sociological insight the show offers. For instance, to explore students’ reactions to the show, I ask students in my Sociological Theory course to assess the different episodes of South Park we viewed during the semester through the lens of the Frankfurt School’s theory of the culture industry. In this assignment, students support one of two theses in an essay: does South Park attract audiences simply by shocking viewers with grotesque spectacle, or is the show playing the traditional role of art in helping viewers confront the hypocrisies and contradictions of our culture? Given how the show depicts racist and homophobic characters (Eric Cartman especially), many students are concerned about the perpetuation of prejudices and stereotypes.
Still, the majority of my students argue the show is more than just “toilet humor.” Students applaud South Park’s comedic critique of social reality in arguing the show “uses humor to bring general awareness and knowledge to the public viewers,” or that the show “portrays the problems in our everyday society in a way where you can laugh at it, but still be left thinking of the meaning or the point that they were trying to get across.” Other students suggest South Park confronts issues we as a society should discuss but do not; writing South Park “brings up all the issues that no one else dares to bring up and explains them rather thoroughly,” while another says the show “discusses those “hard questions” or topics that we generally avoid.” However, the most common celebratory comments applaud South Park’s ability to provide a relevant critique of social and cultural reality. One student says the show “points out vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings of society,” another argues South Park shows us the truth and how our culture actually is under the “hidden” mask we each wear,” while one last student claims, “I think it shows us the political and social problems in the world in a way that makes it obvious what the social problems are.”
In fact, cumulative student comments across my ten years of teaching with a variety of animated series suggest students find cartoons an enjoyable way to learn. When asked what they like about my courses on formal evaluations, many students reference my use of cartoons. For example, one writes of my “ability to relate everyday things to the class, i.e. Futurama, Simpsons, South Park.” Another student comments how cartoons “made it possible for everyone to understand the material despite his/her learning style.” One student wrote how I “presented the material in a fun way. We got to watch cartoons. It was awesome.” Another comments “the cartoons relate to what we’re doing in class” and “I like how he shows what we learn through cartoons, it makes class fun.” Only one student, a nontraditional adult learner who had returned to school after retiring, has ever voiced their concerns about the inappropriateness of animated programming in my courses. Perhaps this sole concern emerged because younger students are increasingly desensitized by the spectacle of much modern media; which means maybe students even more so than older instructors are able to easily disregard, or unknowingly engage the grotesque carnival of the show to better appreciate the social and cultural critiques South Park offers.
In addition to substance, convenience also makes the show especially useful for sociology classrooms compared to other animated cartoons (which you will note despite their insight, lack a presence on this website because of limited availability). Not only does South Park’s
freedom from broadcast rules enable the show leeway in its content; South Park
is independent from the policies that make other cartoons more difficult to access. Unlike network shows where syndication profits delay the release of DVDs and limit availability on the web, South Park
is often available a few months after the season airs both on DVD, and online at the website
. On the website, the episodes are often cut into short clips which can help sociology instructors show only relevant clips while avoiding instances of grotesque humor that are sometimes not as insightful. The same type of selective viewing can also be achieved through the other avenues where the show is available; DVD and streaming through online video providers such as Netflix which have the advantage of no commercials.
"In addition to substance, convenience also makes [South Park] especially useful for sociology classrooms compared to other animated cartoons…"
Another benefit of South Park
over network television shows is the speed at which the creators are able to produce episodes. Whereas the typical episode of The Simpsons
takes six months to produce, according to a ‘behind the scenes documentary’ South Park’s
small staff makes use of the latest animation technology to regularly produce episodes in six days (Bradford 2011). This means whereas most cartoons seldom confront current events, South Park
often provides commentary on happenings as they unfold.
Thus my experiences show South Park
is one of, if not the, most effective and accessible animated series that can be used to teach sociology. South Park
(and of course or other cartoons) capture students’ attention while still ensuring critical thinking and sociological insight is conveyed through examples that are insightful, yet never misconstrued for actual reality given they come from an animated series. This both ensures students develop a more critical lens through which to examine and assess their own life and the media they consume, while also showing through examples that if one views life through a critical lens, sociological insight can come from almost anywhere. South Park
already has a notable presence on The Sociological Cinema
, which has links to short clips exploring gender socialization
, and social class
. To further illustrate the usefulness of South Park
as a sociological teaching tool, The Sociological Cinema
posted four of my instructional strategies
in the resources section that use complete episodes. One describes how the "Chickenpox
" episode from Season 2 of South Park
can be used to illustrate the three sociological paradigms’ explanations for inequality. In another, I outline how I teach introductory students about agents of socialization using the "Hooked on Monkey Fonics
" episode from Season 3. Additionally, for very outgoing instructors the "Fishsticks
" episode from Season 15 exemplifies both Cooley and Mead’s theories of self. Lastly, I illustrate the concept of reification that is central to critical theory, which can be taught using an episode from Season 13 called "Margaritaville
." Each episode-based exercise includes a printable worksheet, as in my experience, a formal approach to teaching with cartoons is one way to help ensure students seriously undertake the effort.
Jason Eastman Jason Eastman is Editor-in-Chief at SociologySounds and an Associate 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. References
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- Arp, Robert (ed). 2007. South Park and Philosophy. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
- Bradford, Arthur. 2011. “Six Days To Air: The Making Of South Park.” Comedy Central (October 9).
- Brown, Alan and Chris Logan. 2005. The Psychology of The Simpsons. Dallas, TX: Bella Books.
- Burton, Emory C. 1988. "Sociology and the Feature Film." Teaching Sociology 16: 263-71.
- Curry, Timothy J. 1985. Frederick Wiseman: Sociological Filmmaker? Contemporary Sociology 14(1): 35-39.
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- Eastman, Jason. 2011. “Cartoon Sociology; Core Concepts in King of the Hill.” Class Activity in published in TRAILS: Teaching Resources and Innovation Library for Sociology.
- Fisher, Bradley J. 1992. "Exploring Ageist Stereotypes through Commercial Motion Pictures." Teaching Sociology 20: 280-84.
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- Hare, Sarah C. 2010. “Using The Simpsons to teach Gender Issues.” Class Activity in published in TRAILS: Teaching Resources and Innovation Library for Sociology.
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- Heffernan, Virginia. 2004. “What? Morals in 'South Park'?” New York Times (April 28).
- Irwin, William, Mark T. Conrad, and Aeon J. Skoble. 2001. The Simpsons and Philosophy: The D’Oh of Homer. Peru, IL: Carus Publishing Company.
- Keslowitz, Steven. 2006. The World According to The Simpsons. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, Inc.
- Kroft, Steve. 2011. “Parker & Stone's Subversive Comedy.” 60 Minutes (September 25).
- LeBlanc, Lauraine. 1997. "Observing Reel Life: Using Feature Films to Teach Ethnographic Methods." Teaching Sociology 25: 62-68.
- Livingston, Kathy. 2004. "Viewing Popular Films about Mental Illness through a Sociological Lens." Teaching Sociology 32: 119-28.
- Loewen, James W. 1991. "Teaching Race Relations from the Feature Films." Teaching Sociology 19: 82-86.
- Malcom, Nancy L. 2006. "Analyzing the News: Teaching Critical Thinking Skills in a Writing Intensive Social Problems Course." Teaching Sociology 34: 143-49.
- Maynard, Richard A. 1971. The Celluloid Curriculum: How to Use Movies in the Classroom. New York: Hayden.
- Papademas, Diana (ed). 2002. Visual Sociology: Teaching with Film/Video, Photography, and Visual Media, 5th Edition. American Sociological Association.
- Pendergrast, Christopher. 1986. "Cinema Sociology: Cultivating the Sociological Imagination through Popular Film." Teaching Sociology 14: 243-48.
- Pescosolido, Bernice A. 1990. "Teaching Medical Sociology through Film: Theoretical Perspectives and Practical Tools." Teaching Sociology 18: 337-46.
- Pinsky, Mark I. 2007. The Gospel According the Simpsons: Bigger and Possibly Even Better Edition. Louisville: Westminister John Knox Press.
- Poniewozik, James. 2009. “Is South Park the Most Moral Show On TV?” Time (March 12).
- Ryan, Denise. 2008. “The Simpsons as sociology? D'oh!” Vancouver Sun (April 28).
- Scanlan, Stephen J. and Seth L. Feinberg. 2000. “The Cartoon Society: Using The Simpsons to Teach and Learn Sociology.” Teaching Sociology 28:127-39.
- _____. 2007. “So Where Are We Now? Reflecting on The Simpsons for Teaching and Learning Sociology.” Pp. 73-75 in Teaching the Sociology of Deviance, 6th ed., edited by Bruce Hoffman and Ashley Demyan. Washington, DC: The American Sociological Association.
- _____. 2010. “Still Analyzing the Cartoon Society: Reflecting on The Simpsons for Teaching and Learning Sociology.” Essay published in TRAILS: Teaching Resources and Innovation Library for Sociology.
- Smith, Don D. 1982. "Teaching Undergraduate Sociology through Feature Films." Teaching Sociology 10(1): 98-101.
- Tan, JooEan and Yiu-Chung Ko. 2004. "Using Feature Films to Teach Observation in Undergraduate Research Methods." Teaching Sociology 32:109-18.
- Tipton, Dana Bickford and Kathleen A. Tiemann. 1993. "Using the Feature Film to Facilitate Sociological Thinking." Teaching Sociology 21:187-191.
- Todd, Anne Marie. 2009. “Prime-Time Subversion: The Environmental Rhetoric of The Simpsons.” Pp. 230-43 in Environmental Sociology: From Analysis to Action, edited by Leslie King and Deborah McCarthy. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefiled Publishers, Inc.
- Tolich, Martin. 1992. "Bridging Sociological Concepts into Focus in the Classroom with Modern Times, Roger and Me, and Annie Hall." Teaching Sociology 344-47.
- Valdez, Avelardo and Jeffrey A. Halley. 1999. "Teaching Mexican American Experiences through Film: Private Issues and Public Problems." Teaching Sociology 27:286-95.
- Waltonen, Karma and Denise Du Vernay. 2010. The Simpsons in the Classroom: Embiggening the Learning Experiences with the Wisdom of Springfield. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc.
- Weinstock, Jeffrey Andew (ed). 2008. Taking South Park Seriously. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Comedy serves as a fascinating yet controversial area of analysis in sociology. The way comedic performances frame sensitive subjects such as racism, sexism, and classism tell us much about society and about ourselves as viewers. In many instances, comedians seek to make their audience laugh through whatever means possible—including the use and reproduction of harmful stereotypes
--in order to gain popularity and earn a living. However, in some cases comedians can serve as formidable weapons of cultural transformation because of their sanctioned authority to progressively debate even the most difficult topics. Accordingly, comedy has the potential
to encourage audiences to critically think about why the joke made them uncomfortable and why they laughed at the joke. In analyzing humor from sociological perspective, it is important to consider what these jokes reveal about ourselves and our society. Using Sarah Silverman’s video, "I Love You More" (a.k.a. “Jewish People Driving German Cars”), this post considers what activist role comedians can serve in raising awareness about racism, and what, if any, boundaries should be drawn by comedians targeting race in their performances:
In this video, Sarah Silverman explores and critiques many different racial and ethnic stereotypes. She sings lines like “I love you more than Jews love money” and “I love you more than Asians are good at math.” To elaborate on one example, Silverman articulates that “Jewish people driving German cars” is similar to “Black guys calling each other niggers.” When the narrative cuts short to two deadpan African-American men, they stare at her in all seriousness and do not laugh at the comparison; the tension created from the scene is unsettling. For a moment, Silverman looks taken aback and frowns sheepishly, until one of the African-American men starts laughing and she, relieved, playfully pushes one of them and starts laughing again. Both men immediately stop laughing and stare unbelievably at her in silence. She nervously tries to laugh at the joke again, but this time they do not join in and continue to stare at her, showing that it isn’t funny to them for her to make a joke out of racism against their racial group, even though she also inhabits the identity of another historically oppressed group (she is Jewish). Silverman cuts off the video mid-laugh by turning her head to the camera while smiling and singing "Chachacha!"Silverman's use of the "n-word" creates a tense moment.
While many people love Silverman's humor, it is not for everyone. But stay with me here; let’s unpack this to the degree that people do find it funny (and based on the YouTube comments
, at least some people do). How should we interpret Silverman’s comedy and the role of her race and ethnicity in her performance? More broadly, how does the race or ethnicity of the comedian telling the joke affect our reception of the joke? Is it okay for black people to do racially prejudiced jokes about African-Americans, or wouldn’t that also be discriminatory of them to do so? Are there times when it is acceptable for dominant racial or ethnic groups to make jokes about racial minorities? To help us understand how humor functions and how audiences receive humor, we can draw upon a number of theories of humor.
First, according to relief theory
, we find humor in taboo topics and “naughty” thoughts (Mulder and Nijolt 2002
). This theory of humor is based in Freudian theory which sees such taboo subjects as creating a nervousness or “psychic energy,” which is released through laughter. This is especially the case when an individual has suppressed particular feelings, which are addressed in a comedic performance, and relieved through laughter. In our examples here, audiences are likely to recognize that the stereotypes presented in Silverman’s video are taboo or politically incorrect, and to the degree that they feel uncomfortable (which may be compounded if they partially accept the stereotypes but suppress their beliefs), this nervousness may be released through laughter. But this only suggests why we laugh, but not necessarily why we interpret the joke as humorous.
Second, incongruity theory
posits that people laugh to release physical, mental, or emotional tension when there are incongruities (i.e. things that are perceived to be out of place or inconsistent in relation to the established social norms). From this perspective, humor may be seen as releasing anxiety and tension over incompatibility between the object that is being targeted and how the audience anticipates a different meaning. But given a range of possible audience perceptions, different audiences may identify different incongruities and thus experience humor for distinct reasons. In this case, the analysis hinges on identifying various incongruities, which I will pursue further below.
Third, Charles Gruner’s superiority theory
helps further explain why and how people find certain jokes about race funny and others offensive. Superiority theory rests on the assumptions that “we laugh about the misfortunes of others [and] it reflects our own superiority” (Mulder and Nijolt 2002
: 3). It argues that “every humorous situation has a winner and a loser; incongruity is always present in a humorous situation; [and] humor requires an element of surprise” (Mulder and Nijolt 2002: 3). From this perspective, humor is a means to “compete” with others and “the ‘winner’ is the one that successfully makes fun of the ‘loser’” (Mulder and Nijolt 2002: 3). (Picture the bully making jokes about someone else to put them down.)
When we integrate incongruity theory with superiority theory, we might see some troubling consequences of jokes that play on stereotypes. In short, “the phenomenon of humor requires the participation of at least two parties: an object (probably incongruous) and an appreciator (probably feeling superior)” (Lyttle 2003
). This joke becomes funny (for some audiences) because the objects made fun of by Silverman during the performance are black, Puerto-Ricans, gays and lesbians, and Jewish people. From this perspective the incongruity might lie in the unexpected juxtapositions of different stereotypes, their simultaneous juxtaposition to crude statements (e.g. “I love you more than dogs love balls”), her usage of a derogatory racial slur while members of that racial group are present and appear physically threatening, and the audience’s overall struggle to interpret her political incorrectness. In particular, the narrative gets progressively more incongruent as the tension escalates from her sense of entitlement to criticize other oppressed minority groups. While some audiences might feel offended, this humor may empower others to feel superior because they seemingly lack the negative traits of the stereotypes groups.
In extending superiority theory sociologically, we can further draw upon maintenance theory. Maintenance theory argues that comedians'
jokes maintain the established social roles and divisions within a society. They can strengthen roles within the family, within a working environment and everywhere there exists an in-group and out-group. When [ethnic] jokes are concerned, jokers choose groups very similar to theirs as the target of the joke only to focus on the mutual differences and in that way strengthen the established divisions between the two groups. (Mulder and Nijolt 2002: 7)
Silverman’s humor supports this theory when she begins playing into an ethnic stereotype about Jewish people. She sings “I love you more than Jews love money” and then branches off into increasingly more offensive stereotypes about marginalized races and ethnicities, and gays and lesbians. The audience could perceive her as acknowledging some of the preconceived notions about her own ethnic groups only to establish that they are very different and separate from the preconceived cultural meanings attached other oppressed groups. This is accomplished by suggesting that her ethnic group has a sense of class-based superiority over these other groups.
If we interpret Silverman’s video through the lenses of superiority theory or maintenance theory, we should be highly critical of it. As the YouTube comments
for the video illustrate, many viewers do indeed take her stereotypes at face-value and find humor in them. If this were the only interpretation, we should critique Silverman, as a white middle-class comedian, to tell jokes that draw so blatantly on stereotypes about other oppressed racial and ethnic groups. From these perspectives, her humor reproduces stereotypes and the power relationship that is built upon them. Many comedians and jokes rely on these very dynamics. However, these are not the only interpretations of Silverman’s humor in this context.
Louis CK also pushes issues of race in his humor.
Rather, there is also a deeper, more critical incongruity in Silverman’s humor in this video. This incongruity is situated in how the objects (various racial and ethnic stereotypes) are positioned relative to one another in a way that actually challenges both the stereotypes and their usage by a white, middle-class comedian. The audience perceives a supposed ignorance in her usage of these stereotypes only to recognize that she is juxtaposing them in a critical manner. She produces dramatic irony that makes the audience sensitive to racial dilemmas raised in the performance. In short, one racial stereotype is like any other; they are gross oversimplifications that can be hurtful, but they do not affect all audiences in the same way (as exhibited by the reaction of African-Americans in the video). Or like Louis CK
once said, “white people don’t get offended by being called crackers.” Here, Silverman is bringing attention both to the inappropriate usage of the stereotype as well as her usage of it as a white person.
For those viewers that acknowledge these subtleties, we can interpret her song as raising awareness about why it is not okay for those who benefit from white or class privilege to use racial slurs or make racist comments. By introducing the African-American men in the skit, she holds the mirror up to herself and uses the tense, but humorous, moment to critique her own use of stereotypes. When the skit ends with a harsh realization that the comedian did not have the right to criticize the misfortune of these groups in the first place, the joke serves as a useful tool to unpack the sense of entitlement that white privilege bestows upon certain comedians, including Silverman. From this perspective, the tension is resolved only when the audience realizes through Silverman’s interaction with the two African-American men that it is her and her white privilege that should be made fun of. If we accept this interpretation, we might see her witty humor as exposing her own white privilege.
I leave it up to the reader to determine which of these theories of humor is appropriate for interpreting the video of Sarah Silverman, a white upper-middle class, female, Jewish comedian. Again, when we look at the YouTube comments
for the video, I believe we find evidence that viewers draw upon all these interpretations (and more). But the broader questions about the role of race in humor, and the quality of that humor, still do not end there. Even if we accept her humor as an attempt to expose white privilege, is it acceptable that she uses such blatant and derogatory racial slurs to so? As noted on Jezebel
, perhaps comedians must actually come from the marginalized position to claim to speak on behalf of them, or perhaps “if you need to rely on jarring, abominable and offensive words, you're probably not that funny” anyway. Elizabeth Dickson Elizabeth Dickson is a student at Ohio Wesleyan University, where she is double-majoring in Psychology and Sociology.
White privilege refers to the unearned advantages that whites receive because of their skin color. It includes a vast array of concrete advantages varying from institutional settings (systemic discrimination in housing markets) to everyday encounters (e.g. being able to shop in a store without getting followed). They provide a variety of social and economic benefits, and can be cashed in, to confer greater power, authority, and status upon whites. But as Peggy McIntosh argues
in "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack," these privileges are usually invisible to people who benefit from.
Largely because these advantages are invisible, it is no surprise that
many people deny the existence of white privilege. For example, we have seen this denial throughout our Facebook page
, and comments
on previous posts. Some of the critics makes claims such as "White privilege is a myth" and "What we really have in America today is black privilege." If you venture over to the entry on white privilege at Urban Dictionary
, you see definitions like this: White privilege is "the racist
idea that simply being white benefits people in some unexplainable way, and that discriminating against white people is not only okay, but enlightened and necessary" and "A term used as a blanket condemnation of any success a white person may have." Throughout these discussions and comments, you see that not only do some people deny any existence of white privilege, but they do so with such anger and emotion that is very striking. For many people, they feel wronged to be told that they may have unearned advantages from their skin color, and they are more comfortable believing that their accomplishments in life are based solely on their own hard work and merit. So is white privilege real? Yes. And contrary to the definition above at
Urban Dictionary, it is clearly explainable. By drawing upon many of our previous posts here, I will curate a multimedia look at white privilege, how it works, and how we might be able to talk about it with people who deny its existence. INSTITUTIONALIZED ADVANTAGES White privilege is institutionalized when
the practices and policies of an institution systematically benefit whites at the expense of other racial groups. There are many examples of this. In the US, institutionalized advantages have been conferred upon whites throughout history in the accumulation of wealth. Beginning with slavery, encoded in New Deal policies, and in institutional practices today
, whites continue to gain advantages in wealth accumulation. This first video (below) illustrates the extent of this gap today, and how the recent economic crisis has actually widened this gap. As of 2010, white households ($113,000) now have 18 times the net worth of Hispanics ($6,325) and 20 times the net worth of African-Americans ($5,677). See our full analysis here
White privilege is also institutionalized in the labor market. In this clip
, economist Sendhil Mullainathan discusses his (and co-author Marianne Bertrand's) 2004 field experiment that examined racial discrimination in the labor market (article here
). They sent out 5,000 resumes to real job ads. Everything in the job ads were the same except that half of the names had traditionally African-American names (e.g. “Lakisha Washington” or “Jamal Jones”) and half had typical white names (e.g. “Emily Walsh” or “Greg Baker”). As they illustrate, people with African-American-sounding names have to send out 50% more resumes to get the same number of callbacks as people with white-sounding names. This shows a clear advantage given to whites in applying to jobs, and helps explain part
of the racial gap in income.
White privilege is institutionalized in schools. Whites attend schools that spend more money per student, on average, than racial minorities. On average, they have better teachers. We can see this privilege illustrated in this video examining the role of race and education (see our full analysis here)
Follow this link to see further examples of how white privilege is institutionalized the housing market
. The key point here is that in each of these examples, whites are given certain advantages over other racial groups. This was not an advantages earned by whites through merit or hard work, but rather, was given to them based on the color of their skin. Of course, there is much variation within people of the same racial group (e.g. class privilege, male privilege, etc). For example, working class whites still experience many disadvantages in society, even if they experience white privilege. However, the simultaneous existence of multiple (and intersecting) privileges does not mean that white privilege does not exist. EVERYDAY ENCOUNTERS
White privilege is also experienced in everyday life. Peggy McIntosh provides a list of examples here
. Some of our videos found on our site also illustrate how skin color confers advantages in everyday life. For example, this Anderson Cooper video shows the stereotypes held by young children. We can easily imagine how this would provide advantages in how whites with similar attitudes would give preferential treatment over those with darker skin (see our full analysis here
In this next clip, author and educator Joy DeGruy recounts a story about a time she went shopping with her sister-in-law, who happens to be light-skinned and often "passes" as a white woman. This includes one of the many examples where racial preferences for whites shapes everyday experiences (see our full analysis here
It is worth noting, however, that while enduring a blatant instance of discrimination from a suspicious store clerk, DeGruy recalls that her sister-in-law stepped forward and confronted the clerk. In other words, she went further than simply recognizing her own white privilege, and in this case, she used it to call out an act of discrimination and highlight the injustice for onlookers. This example highlights the role that individuals can play in combating white privilege ... COMBATING WHITE PRIVILEGE
Despite the evidence, many people resist the notion of white privilege and deny its existence. So how can we engage them to combat white privilege and its inherent injustice? One way is through humor. In this clip from his show "Chewed Up," comedian Louis C.K. examines white privilege (including his own white privilege). One of the benefits of whiteness he explores is his ability to travel to any time period in history and know that, regardless of the historical era, he would be advantaged. He also examines the potential disadvantages of future retribution. Given the fact that whiteness has been so consistently privileged over such a long period of time, the clip can highlight for students the multi-generational privileges that accumulate over time from being white. Part of its power comes from Louis C.K.'s humor, which can help to break through some resistance to the concept, and make some individuals more likely to engage in a conversation. (BUT: note that while the clip may not explain present-day advantages of being white, viewers can critically approach Louis C.K.'s suggestion that "anything before 1980" would be a difficult time for non-white people. Contrary to this comment, white privilege clearly persists today; see our full analysis here
Another way to help combat white privilege is to be an advocate! Speak up! Part of the privilege that whites have (which they never specifically asked for) is that people will listen to you when you talk about white privilege! Here is scholar and activist Tim Wise speaking on white privilege:
Of course, people of all racial groups constantly struggle against white privilege. And a final way to combat white privilege is to join a group fighting racial discrimination and oppression. Help build cross-race alliances and lend support to marginalized groups speaking out about the racism they experience. Only by talking about and engaging in conversations about racial oppression and white privilege can we overcome it. Paul Dean
| || | New Books in Sociology
is an untapped resource for the classroom. In these podcasts, the hosts spend about an hour talking with the author of a new sociological book. While they are all interesting, a recent podcast
caught my (aspiring genocide scholar) eye. Evil Men
, by James Dawes
, draws on firsthand accounts of convicted war criminals. This podcast would make a fantastic assignment in a course covering genocide, human rights, international law, or criminology. Below are a few questions that could accompany the podcast.
| || |
- Who did Dawes choose to interview, and why?
- Why were interviews an appropriate research method for this project?
- Were people willing to talk with Dawes? Why do you think this was the case?
- What did Dawes learn about why these “evil men” committed the crimes they did?
- What do his findings tell us about why people commit war crimes? Based on what you have heard, do you find anything problematic about drawing scientific conclusions from his book?
"This podcast could also be paired with several other activities on Teaching TSP..."
A new book by James Dawes, "Evil Men."
This podcast could also be paired with several other activities on Teaching TSP, such as the following two activities about the Milgram experiment and an activity about power.
Obedience to Authority
Any discussion about why people commit war crimes can easily be linked to Stanley Milgram’s famous experiments. As many (if not all) of you know, Milgram designed a series of experiments to see whether people would shock others up to lethal levels when instructed to do so by a scientist. In most cases and depending on various situational characteristics, the majority of people complied, showing they would shock someone up to lethal levels. (You can read more about the experiments on A Backstage Sociologist post, found here
A BBC documentary covered an effort to recreate the experiment a few years ago, which found similar results (with a small number of total participants, however). The entire documentary is on YouTube, but if you’re worried about time, this 6-minute clip shows the actual experiment and includes brief discussions about authority.
This clip is a great way to kick off a discussion about authority and, in the case of Dawes’ podcast, to begin to illustrate why human rights violations may take place. This clip can also be linked with a discussion about Weber’s types of authority.
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Lastly, discussions of authority and human rights violations can also be informed by discussions of power. Below is an activity that will be included in a forthcoming W.W. Norton & Company volume on politics. I have used the activity in lessons about the causes of human rights violations, so it is modified toward that end. However, you could change the questions on power to reflect any class discussion. Here’s the activity:
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- Make four signs labeled “agree,” “strongly agree,” “disagree,” and “strongly disagree.” Hang one sign in each corner of the room.
- Tell participants that you will be reading a series of statements about power. After each statement, they should stand under the sign that most closely reflects their reaction to the statement (and that they must choose a sign).
- Read the first statement (listed below). After participants have assembled under the signs, ask each group to discuss why they picked that particular position and to choose a spokesperson to explain a few points of the discussion.
- Ask everyone to leave their group and go to the center of the room. Then ask participants to stand under the sign that most closely reflects their own reaction to the statement again. (This gives participants the opportunity to change their positions if they wish, though this is optional based on how discussion is going and the time you have allotted.) Ask whether, after hearing the various arguments, any participants changed their position. Then ask a few volunteers to explain why they decided to change their positions.
- Repeat this exercise for the following statements. You can add or subtract statements to alter the length of the exercise.
*Power corrupts. *Power causes human rights violations. *You can’t get anything done without power. We started the discussion about power with this activity. Then, we defined power and talked about why it’s a loaded word. We also talked about a few other assumptions that came up during the discussion, such as the idea that power is only an attribute of people (rather than something structural or institutional) and the idea that only some people have power. This activity could be paired with the TSP Special on power, found here.
| | Hollie Nyseth Brehm Hollie Nyseth Brehm is a Sociology Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Minnesota. She studies human rights and law, international crime, representations of atrocities, and environmental sociology. Her dissertation examines the conditions and courses of genocide in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Sudan; and she is the graduate editor of The Society Pages
| || | 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.
A Boy Scout troop protests to keep their troop "morally straight." Photo: Associated Press / Richard Rodriguez
The Boy Scouts is an American value-based youth organization that focuses on the development of boys into productive and responsible citizens by empowering them to be leaders in their communities. According to the Boy Scouts official mission statement
, “[t]he mission of the Boy Scouts of America is to prepare young people to make ethical and moral choices over their lifetimes by instilling in them the values of the Scout Oath and Law.” Scout Law defines a Boy Scout as “trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, [and] reverent,” universal characteristics which encourage all boys to become “responsible, participating citizen[s] and leaders”. However, the Scout Oath discerning the values that the boys must swear allegiance to includes the declaration that they will keep themselves “physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.” The exact meaning of “morally straight” has recently come under scrutiny and debate across the nation. For example, this news video features Peter Sprigg, Senior Fellow on the Family Research Council, encouraging “the Boy Scouts to stand firm with the timeless principles they have always represented” and to specifically uphold “moral principles,” which means discouraging homosexuality:
In January, the Boy Scouts of America met to vote on their policy that excludes membership to gays, lesbians, and transgendered individuals, but postponed the vote due to the “complexity of the issue”. While individual troops may choose to overlook the enforcement of this policy, the Boy Scouts handbook explicitly states that “[w]hile the BSA [Boy Scouts of America] does not proactively inquire about the sexual orientation of employees, volunteers, or members, we do not grant membership to individuals who are open or avowed homosexuals or who engage in behavior that would become a distraction to the mission of the BSA
[emphasis added by author]” (BSA-discrimination.org
).This erroneously argues that LGBT people distract boys from becoming “responsible, participating citizens and leaders” in a way that blatantly suggests openly gay members are not capable of participating as full, equal members of society. Arguing that openly gay members would stop boys from making morally sound decisions subordinates the masculinity of gay men by claiming that their reasoning and morality is defective in comparison to heterosexual men’s masculinity. Presumably, the primary reason for this is their deviance in preferred sexual partners. This second clip of popular right-wing Christian leader Pat Robertson attempts to cast doubt about homosexual men’s masculinity as immoral and conflated with pedophilia, which reasserts that the most normal and accepted form of masculinity as one that is exclusively heterosexual:
Pat Robertson’s and Peter Sprigg’s claims exist as a part of public discourse on the issue even though the majority of the scientific community, including the American Psychological Association
, have soundly disproven these claims. In light of this, similar organizations, such as the Girl Scouts of America, have subsequently altered their policies
to be inclusive of LGBT members for a number of years.
One way of analyzing the continued defense of this policy by the Boy Scouts is through the lens of Raewyn Connell’s theory of hegemonic masculinity. Connell (2005
) describes hegemonic masculinity as “the pattern of practice (i.e., things done, not just a set of role expectations or an identity)” that establishes more than men’s dominance over women. Connell adds that hegemonic masculinity asserts other forms of masculinity as subordinate in relation to it and “embodie[s] the currently most honored way of being a man.” It “require[s] all other men to position themselves in relation to it.”
1.4 million people have signed a petition against the Boy Scout's discriminatory policy. Photo: Associated Press
Through this lens, the Boy Scouts’ ardent defense of an anti-LGBT policy can be seen as an attempt to reaffirm a rigid gender binary with the most popular version of a right, moral or correct masculinity. Not only does it establish that real men are strong and brave, but also heterosexual. It subjugates men who are attracted to other men, and portrays them as ”immoral”. Accordingly, part of the power of hegemonic masculinity in shaping gender norms rests in the subordination of alternative masculinities. Therefore, dislodging this type of masculinity from being seen as more moral and acceptable than other marginalized masculinities, such as queer masculinities, is a necessary step for these men to gain equality and power to voice their concerns about issues in their community. As long as gay men are prevented from participating fully in mainstream organizations, especially those concerned with morality and ethics, issues disproportionately affecting their community, such as the endemic of HIV/AIDS, cannot be fully addressed.
Elizabeth Dickson is a student at Ohio Wesleyan University, where she is double-majoring in Psychology and Sociology.