October 18, 2012

Surviving Sociology Midterms

SternheimerBy Karen Sternheimer

Are you about to take midterms in a sociology class for the first time? If so, here are some tips for how to think sociologically, which will help you on any format of exam you might be taking.

1. Micro or Macro?

One of the biggest mistakes new sociology students make is answering a macro question with a micro answer, and vice versa.

Is the question being posed asking you to think from a macrosociological, or big picture perspective? If so, be sure that your response considers the role of social structure, social institutions, and large-scale patterns. Or if the question is asking for a microsociological, or small-scale perspective, focus on small group interactions, the ways in which meanings are create through face-to-face interactions, and how our identities are shaped through our interactions with others.

As Janis Prince Inniss blogged about a few years ago, the methods used in a study also tip off whether the questions were micro or macro. Statistical data tends to give us a snapshot of a large pattern, while ethnographic or in-depth interview data is more often rooted in more micro-level questions. But the two can be connected; if we have Census data, for instance, on income, we can learn about macro-level patterns of stratification. If we have interviews with people living in poverty, we can learn how individuals make meaning of their social position and struggle to survive.

2. Straightforward or Counterintuitive?

As I blogged about in the past, sometimes it is tempting to think that answers to sociological questions are obvious to any member of society.

Since we live in the society in which we study, it may be tempting to think that we can base answers to sociological questions on our own experiences. But as sociologist Deborah Carr discussed in this video, our experiences might guide our research questions, but sometimes the answers to these questions are very different than we might expect. We sociologists are fascinated by complex and sometimes unexpected findings, so it’s a good idea to keep this in mind for any exam.

3. Analysis or Opinion?

This can be a tough distinction for students to make, but it is an important one. Does the question ask you to share your personal thoughts on a topic, or does it require you to apply sociological theories and research to better explain something?

In my classes, I don’t ask students for their opinions. It’s not that I don’t expect people to have them, or that they aren’t interesting, but analysis requires us to put aside our opinions momentarily and see what data tell us about a sociological question.

This is often much harder to do than give an opinion about an issue, yet it still requires us to apply our own unique intellectual gifts to analyze a question. It’s always exciting to see students apply ideas from course readings and draw clear connections to a question, even if it might involve some extrapolation.

For many students, even for those who are extremely talented, extrapolation can be scary. “So, do you just want me to give my opinion on this question,” they sometimes ask, unsure about the difference between applying ideas from research about one concept to another. But this is very different from an opinion.

Here’s an example: let’s say you have an exam question about changes in marriage, and based on this you are asked to extrapolate on the future of marriage.

Your personal experiences would shape your opinions, and might make you feel that marriage in the mid-twentieth century seemed more solid, since there were fewer divorces, and maybe that’s when your grandparents married and they are still together while your parents have divorced. You might feel anxious about the future of marriage because of this, watching other friends and relatives struggle in their relationships and hearing someplace that half of all marriages end in divorce.

An analysis of this same example might focus primarily on structural changes that have taken place. These changes would impact why people marry, as well as the different stressors economic shifts might place on marriage. Or you might note that based on long-term trends, divorce rates have leveled off over the last decade or so, that on average people get married later in life than in the past, discussing how social changes have redefined marriage. Based on the research your text reports, some of the data you have seen for your class, you could then hypothesize that while the experiences people have within marriages might mutate, the institution itself seems like it is here to stay, maybe citing public opinion polls showing that most single respondents hope to marry someday.

Learning to think like a sociologist requires more than just memorizing glossary terms. It is a new way of seeing. Besides, seeing through a sociological lens is far more interesting than reading flash cards over and over. What other tips do you have to help others think sociologically?


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Honestly speaking, I have a tricky confusion with micro and macro. Thanks for your enlightenment. I appreciate your blog.

Thanks for great article, can I share to my site?

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