Asking Sociological Questions
I often tell students that I hope they leave my classes with more questions than answers. This statement may seem counterintuitive. Our typical model of education is based on the idea that students’ heads should be filled with knowledge such as definitions, dates, and all sorts of data. The idea that students would finish their coursework with more question marks than periods goes against the conventional wisdom of schooling.
By making this statement I am suggesting that if students want to take what they’ve learned in class and extend it into their social worlds then they will need to know how to ask questions. If they are merely satisfied with the knowledge that has been instilled in them then they have probably not been challenged intellectually. More important, or more troubling, leaving a class without any lingering questions is likely to inhibit their ability to be life-long learners.
On the surface, it may seem rather simple to ask questions and to some extent this is correct. After all, we all know what words we use to begin a question: who, what, where, why, when and how. But in teaching students to ask questions I try to distinguish between asking questions and asking sociological questions.
This distinction is crucial because if we are not asking sociological questions then the answers and explanations that result will also be non-sociological. Non-sociological explanations are all too common in our society. Their defining feature is that they have a singular focus on the individual and a corresponding disregard for the structural dimensions of the issue. Non-sociological explanations routinely blame individuals for their actions instead of pointing to larger external factors.
Let me try to illustrate this point with three examples that relate specifically to the lives of students.
1. Intimate Partner Violence. When we hear about a typical case of intimate partner violence (female victim, male perpetrator) the first question that many people ask is: Why didn’t she leave? Why did she stay in a relationship that was physically and emotionally abusive? Questions such as these put the blame squarely on the shoulders of the individual. The not-so-subtle insinuation is that she should not have allowed this to happen to her.
As a sociologist, we might ask different questions: Why did one person think it was appropriate to abuse another? What is about our society that makes intimate partner violence common? Do the lack of structural supports (i.e., legal, financial, familial, occupational, or educational) contribute to individuals staying in unhealthy situations? Are there social stigmas attached to “coming out” as a victim of intimate partner violence? These sociological questions shift our focus (and the implicit blame) from the individual victim to the larger social structure.
2. Academic Motivation. As an educator, one of the biggest complaints I often read and hear about is students’ lack of academic motivation. The questions that inevitably arise in these discussions are focused directly on the students: Why don’t students today want to learn? Why are students disengaged? Why do they just seem to go through the motions? Why are they more interested in texting in class than paying attention to the material that is being taught? These questions assume that students today are opposed to learning and they often result in negative and denigrating statements about students. (Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons)
A more sociological question might ask why should students want to learn? What aspects of the educational process encourage them to be engaged, excited, and motivated learners? We might also wonder how they have been socialized to not want to learn, to reject their natural inclination for curiosity and exploration. Instead of assuming that there is something innately wrong with today’s students these questions attempt to pinpoint the educational structures that discourage intellectual inquisitiveness and engaged learning.
3. Student Debt. The debt for college-student loans has recently reached the 1 trillion dollar mark. This staggering number has prompted a barrage of questions about college. Some of prevalent questions we hear are: Is college for everyone? Are we letting too many people into college who just can’t afford to be there? Are some students better off bypassing the high cost of college and enrolling in vocational training?
From a sociological perspective, these sorts of questions are problematic on two accounts. First, they fail to question why the cost of college has increased so dramatically over the past twenty years. The cost of higher education has gone up over 400% since 1985 while the consumer price index has only risen about 100%. And while the cost of attending college has skyrocketed public expenditures for higher education have not come close to keeping pace. In fact, in 2011, state-level financial support fell to its lowest rate in 25 years.
The second problem with the typical questions about the student debt—and whether or not college should be accessible to everyone—is that these sorts of questions have some not-so-subtle racial and class-based undertones. If college became more selective to only those who could afford it then low-income, non-whites would largely be the ones excluded. These individuals would not just miss out on the opportunity to attend college; additionally, they would miss out on one of the main opportunities for upward social mobility.
As sociologists Paul Attwell and David Lavin demonstrate in their book, Passing the Torch: Does Higher Education for the Disadvantaged Pay Off Across the Generations?, universal access to higher education reduces economic disparities and has lasting positive effects across generations. The authors conclude that the open admissions policies of the City University of New York (CUNY) allowed women from underprivileged backgrounds the ability to attend college and secure the cultural and social capital to foster academic success among their children.
The three examples in this post are intended to offer a taste of what it means to ask sociological questions. Sociological questions consider the structural dimension of the issue and strive to understand the bigger picture. We ask sociological questions because the individual-based, victim-blaming questions that are typical in our society do not tell us the full story.
Even if you’ve never asked sociological questions it’s quite easy to do. Just begin with a typical individual-based question (i.e., is college for everyone) but before answering it follow it up with another question (or two) starting with the words why, who, or how (i.e., if college is not for everyone then who is it for). If you do this you will be well on your way to understanding the world sociologically.