Group Projects and Sociology
Are you now, or have you ever, participated in a group project for a class? If so, you have been learning more about sociology, even if you weren’t taking a sociology class.
Group projects are also a good way to learn about the process of conducting research. Many large-scale projects involve collaboration and teamwork. For researchers who work with surveys, writing the survey, distributing it to respondents, and analyzing data is something frequently done with others. The large data sets that sociologists often use, like census data or the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports are create by large teams of researchers who must work together to discover major social trends.
Since sociologists study things like group dynamics, working with a group yourself is a great way to observe this process. How meanings are created, how decisions get made, and how groups create and reflect power dynamics of race, class, and gender are just a few things you can observe in your group. For instance, how does your group divide tasks? Are some members presumed to be strong in one area of the project based on their gender? Is there a struggle for power between members?
The study of labor, work, and occupations also applies here. How do participants construct the meaning of their labor as students? Is it actually considered labor? Do the same power dynamics apply in an academic setting as they might in a private workplace? Is the work assigned more or less meaningful because it is attached to a grade rather than to pay?
Sociologists also study social movements and social change, which never happens in isolation. Just as group members can have differing levels of interest and commitment; people in social movements work do too. Some have a great deal of investment and passion for a cause, while others may have other motives, like feeling a greater connection with their community, or in the case of a group project, just focused on getting a good grade.
Speaking of grades, I know students don’t always like participating in group projects, especially the highest achieving students. I understand this well: I never considered participating in a group assignment as an undergraduate. Not only was I busy, but I rarely trusted that other students would work as hard as I would and feared that my assignment grade would suffer. Invariably someone in the group doesn’t pull their weight and the rest of the team members have to do more than their share.
Even though I know not every student likes group projects, I have started including more of them in my classes; sometimes an optional assignment but increasingly I am making it a required part of the course and provide class time for groups to meet regularly. Of course, some of the least committed students don’t show up to class, still leaving their teammates to do the work without them. Because this happens to many students, part of their group grade is based on anonymous evaluations of their group members, who report on each member’s level of participation.
Many students of sociology come to my office asking what they can do professionally with a degree in sociology, and I tell them that it is a great foundation for anything that involves people. Group projects take those lessons one step further, allowing us to observe the process first-hand.
Students who have participated in group projects learn some of the basic skills needed to work in a team. When asked to provide references for former students, employers regularly ask me if they worked on group projects, and if so, how effective they were in the process. That’s because nearly any job requires us to work well with others. Even most applications for graduate work ask how well students interact with their peers. Having observed students doing group work gives me a lot more useful information to relay to employers or graduate admissions committees than just observing whether they chat with friends before or after class.
Yes, group projects can be fun and they can also be frustrating. But they are useful tools for learning basic work skills—and some of the fundamentals of sociology too.