December 29, 2011

Life after Your Sociology Class

ksternheimerBy Karen Sternheimer

As I write, another semester is coming to an end. Students are getting ready for finals, frantically trying to finish work for all of their classes. All too often students turn in their final papers and exams and never think about the subject matter of their courses again.

Here’s the thing about sociology: as long as you plan on living within a society, among small groups or with other people, the material is always relevant to your everyday life (yes, even your statistics class).

I love to see my students return for more sociology courses in future semesters, but for those graduating or needing to fulfill other requirements, their formal training in sociology may officially end with the school year. Here are some suggestions that I give to students who may never take another sociology course again, but want to keep their sociological imaginations sharp:

1. Think about the one concept from your class that was most influential. Think about how that one idea might shape the way you think about your everyday life and those around you.

Many of my students are influenced by the concept of social constructionism, which teaches us that how we perceive any given issue (like race, homelessness, or occupational status, to name a few) is rooted in social realities that may shift and change over place and time.

Others learn about the role of social structure for the first time and now have a better understanding of how our life chances are shaped by economic realities, our educational opportunities, as well as by policies and laws that affected our (and our families’) choices. While some critics of sociology say we focus too much on doom and gloom, understanding social structure can also help us feel grateful about the opportunities we have had and the privileges we enjoy. We can also better understand why those with fewer opportunities may struggle with obstacles that others do not.

2. Consider if there was a particular issue or concept you learned about that challenged what you believed to be true? If so, what made you change your mind?

In many cases, we base our perceptions about our social world on what others tell us (peers, family members, news reports) rather than on empirical research. As a social science, sociology is based on rigorous scientific research. A sociology course is a good introduction to becoming both a consumer and producer of research; now that you have these tools, it is important to consider whether claims about social issues are based on evidence or on assumptions. The widespread availability of research results online means that we can all do some simple fact checking ourselves, to see if claims we hear about are supported by evidence.

For instance, if you hear that crime is on the rise in your community, you can visit your local law enforcement’s website to check out crime trends. Keeping your sociological imagination alive means checking for empirical evidence and avoiding untested assumptions.

3. Pay attention to things you might have taken for granted before your sociology class.

At first it might be unsettling to see things in a new way, somewhat like getting used to wearing new glasses. But ultimately you will see things more clearly. Did you make assumptions about a person based on gender? Or based on age? Did you make assumptions about why people struggle economically? Use your new sociology lenses to think about what forces might have shaped the choices, behaviors, and attitudes of people in your life.

4. Think about how social structure continues to shape your choices and options.

For instance, how might the economy shape the kind of career you pursue? Are there new industries emerging based on significant social changes? For example, aging populations mean new opportunities in health care and other businesses designed to cater to this group’s special needs. Choosing to care for a sick relative, for instance, might be as much about the realities of health care organizations in one’s community as it is about love and personal choice.

Some students new to sociology struggle with the concept of social structure, in part because it may be difficult to identify and connect with our individual lives. We also struggle with this concept because some students mistakenly believe that accepting social structure’s importance means that we have no free will or ability to take personal responsibility. This is not the case; instead, understanding social structure means understanding the factors that influence, and in some cases, constrain our choices.

Each new semester comes a new opportunity to help others expand their sociological imaginations. I am fortunate that as a sociologist I never have to leave these issues behind; I get to talk about them and write about them indefinitely. And consciously or not, I consistently view the world through the lenses of a sociological imagination.

And so can you.


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This is very true. Most people take stuff for granted. As soon as people are done with a class, they just forget about it. I took two spanish classes during my freshman and sophomore year, and barely remember anything. Maybe I didn't care, but the fact is that a lot people don't care as long as they make it. That's how I look at it, but you have to take into account that most things you learn in school will help with your life ( sociology, basic algebra, etc. ).

I agree, classes that seem irrelevant may, in fact, be very useful outside of school. Taking a sociology class has greatly changed the way I see the world, mainly in the way I see people and their choices. I now have a better understanding of the behaviors of people, due to my study of sociology.

If nothing else, we can take away the knowledge that we do not need to live the life that we have been programmed to lead. When we see the social influences acting on us, we can really start to exercise our free will.

I am a Kenyan teacher with massive interaction with social work. my pain is to experience greedy consumption among the political elite while the restof the masses survive in abject poverty. how can this kind of social injustices be brought down for the coutry to enjoy wht in economics they term as social good. the feel good factorof the citizen. +25407237513-

Thank you! I have used this post to send an end of the academic year communication to my high school students who have are studying sociology at senior secondary level. I have often said something similar to this thought of yours "Here’s the thing about sociology: as long as you plan on living within a society, among small groups or with other people, the material is always relevant to your everyday life" in the class.

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