Good Times and Social Problems
When I was a college student, I scheduled classes around syndicated episodes of Good Times, a 1970s sitcom about the intact African American Evans family of five who lived in a housing project on the south side of Chicago. Although the show had been off the air for nearly 15 years and I had watched every episode, I found myself running back to my dorm room between classes to watch the show.
I am sure that if YouTube or a smart phone were around then, I would have had more ease in satisfying my Good Times fix. While I thought I was being purely entertained, I was an evolving sociologist who was experiencing social problems on the tube. My near-obsession with the show made sense when I became a professor. When I teach social problems in the classroom, I often discuss the Good Times story lines. I had come to realize that what I once thought was purely humorous could become a tool in an online class.
I designed an online section of social problems by integrating Peter Kaufman’s “doing sociology” approach and embedding YouTube URLs of the show into the course. During the Society for the Study of Social Problems (SSSP) conference in August, students described their online experience and how they learned about social problems by watching Good Times on YouTube . They used the show to understand social problems, engaged in analysis via online discussion, reflected on contemporary social issues, and took action through journal writing.
For SSSP, I described how Good Times the show, became Good Times the teaching tool, through the process of social constructionism. We analyzed the television show, which offers near exhaustive examples of social problems within their social context.
During the conference, students described how they defined social problems, based on the “Penny’s Christmas” episode. “Penny” (a young neighbor of the family, played by actress/ singer Janet Jackson) stole jewelry for her adopted mother, after being pick-pocketed while Christmas shopping; this threatened the legal adoption process.
Emile Durkheim’s functionalist perspective can help us understand the institution of the family. The Evans family is a well-defined unit, an urban lower class family that confirmed what poverty looked like for a family of five in inner-city Chicago during the 1970s. Their circumstances were portrayed as an inevitable part of the social order.
Symbolic interactionism canbe applied by understanding the context of words, symbols, exchanges, and the meaning of face-to-face interactions. We used the “Sex and the Evans Family” episode to understand examples of gender bias. In this episode, the father frowned upon his daughter’s reading about sexual behavior, but lauded his son for reading the same information..
The constant struggle between the haves and have-nots on Good Times relates to Karl Marx’s conflict perspective. Change, a central facet of the Marxian perspective, was described as on the brink. While the father character nearly landed jobs, offering significant income potential, he consistently fell short. While the Evans family was actively engaged in the political process, their needs were not met (especially living in poor conditions of a housing project). And while the youngest son on Good Times was notably very bright, there were limited educational opportunities available to him.
Good Times can help us understand social problems and their relationship to social inequality, social institutions, work and the economy, crime, and global problems. Social inequality was characterized by the existence of unequal opportunities and rewards for different social positions or statuses within a group or society.
As an example of social inequality, I used the episode “The Dinner Party,” which featured the character Gertrude Vinson, an elderly tenant of the housing project, who occasionally consumed dog food to make ends meet. This episode sparked discussion and journal writing about the experience of poverty and isolation amongst the aging population.
Good Times also teaches us about work and the economy within the institution of family. The Evans family represents the nearly 20% of poor families who have a head of household who works full-time (where the father character worked full-time at a car wash), but lives below the poverty line. The family had poor health care, limited means to land consistent/ gainful employment, lived in an impoverished/ disorganized community, with limited opportunities, and experienced consistent poverty, while working in the secondary labor market --all issues that still plague the working poor today. There were numerous examples of crime. Episodes including the eldest son being shot by a gang member, illegal gambling, an attempted armed robbery, and the intimidation by loan shark “Sweet Daddy Williams” take place in the series.
While defining social problems, making sense of the sociological paradigms, and examining the relationship to core topics, you can have Good Times too. What other television shows—past and present—provide rich sociological lessons?