July 08, 2013

Poetic Sociology

Peter_kaufmanBy Peter Kaufman

I would like to begin this post with a poem:

 Capitalist History

The capitalist has to create:

the material basis

universal intercourse

mutual dependency

the development of productive powers

the transformation of material production

into a scientific domination of nature.

Material conditions of a new world

created in the same way

as geological revolutions created the surface of the earth.


What we call history

is     but     the history of successive intruders.

The profound hypocrisy

inherent barbarism

of capitalist civilization


unveiled before our eyes.


When a great social revolution

masters the results of the capitalist epoch—

the market of the world, the modern powers of production—

and subjected them

to the common control of the most advanced peoples

then, only

will human progress . . . cease

to resemble that hideous, pagan idol

who would not drink the nectar

but from the skulls of the slain.

Even if you are an avid reader of poetry I’m pretty sure you won’t find this poem in any anthology or poetry collection. However, it is quite possible that you’ve come across these words in a sociological theory textbook. I “wrote” this poem (compiled is probably a better word) using words from a Karl Marx reading (“The Future Results of British Rule In India”) that I’ve used in my Sociological Theory class.

I offer this poem to students as an example at the start of one of my favorite in-class exercises: writing poetry. Using poetry in a sociology class—either by having students write it or read it—may seem odd to some people but poetry and other forms of literature (short stories, novels, plays) can be wonderful supplements to the traditional sociology curriculum.Poetry

This particular poem is an example of found poetry whereby you construct a poem using the words from an already existing text. By shifting around the words, changing the spacing, and making a few additions or deletions, you can craft a creative and analytical interpretation of the book, article, or excerpt that you are considering. 

The found poetry exercise is a great way to make learning sociology fun, imaginative, and stimulating. It is also intellectually challenging and thought-provoking; as a result, it necessitates deeper critical thought. The exercise requires you to have an understanding of the sociological concepts in the reading and then be able to organize these ideas in a creative and coherent manner to convey your point.

I’ve used this exercise in all types of classes from Introduction to Sociology to Senior Seminar. Some students are initially resistant to writing a poem—much less in 30 minutes—but most of them impress themselves and each other when they read their poems out loud. I’m certainly always impressed by what the students create (either individually or in small groups). Here is a poem from a class I taught last year. This student used words from a reading we did by the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire who is well known for his critiques of the oppressive nature of schooling:

Being Human

By Alexander Cruz


It is a distortion.

The absence of hope is not the “normal” way to be a human

A distortion

of being a person without hope.

But, I like being human

Being a person

Precisely because it is not already given as certain that I am

or will be “correct”;

Because I know that my passing through the world is not predetermined

Being a person

is the difference between the unfinished that does not know anything

and the unfinished who has arrived at the point of becoming conscious

I like being human

So please stop trying to condition me.


I particularly appreciate the found poetry exercise because it forces students to engage directly with and think carefully about specific sociological readings as well as larger sociological concepts. It is also a little easier to get the creative juices flowing because students are not starting from a totally blank slate.

In some classes, I do also ask students to write poetry with their own words and ideas. This can be a little more challenging but no less intellectually rewarding. For example, in my Senior Seminar class I ask students on the first day to write haiku—a Japanese form of poetry that is often characterized by three lines and has some allusion to nature. Given that the students in this class have completed a lot of coursework in sociology, I ask them to write haiku that captures what sociology means to them. Here are two examples:


A new spirit will

Be born in community

On top the mountain

(By Caitlin Ryan)


Sitting near a lake

See more than our reflections

So this is sociology

(By K.J.)


When I was in college I had an English professor who said that we really don’t know a poem unless we can recite it by memory. Using a similar premise, I would argue that we really don’t know sociological concepts unless we can write a poem (or some other form of literature) about them. It’s one thing to know a concept abstractly; however, it takes another level of comprehension to illustrate that concept in a creative and original way.

On that note, I leave you with one last poem written by a sociology professor (and former Everyday Sociology blogger) who often transforms sociological concepts into short stories and poetry. He wrote this poem to convey sociological ideas that captured his attention at a time he was reading a lot about social class (notably, this book and this blog post).    

Man of Distinction

By Todd Schoepflin


Can you tell us your secret?

How did you get such great taste?

So cool how you wear something new

You always find the perfect restaurant

You even know who to read

You stay one step ahead of us

And when we catch up you’ve already moved…..on


It’s all so perfect because you present the everyday man façade

Everybody (and I mean everybody) can relate to you.

You’re an amazing balancing act

You distinguish yourself from the rest of us

But never act like you’re better than us

And that’s why it works so well.


Year in, year out, you find it before we do

You know exactly how to work the display

It’s an intangible thing

A skill we can’t compute

If asked about it, you wouldn’t even field the question

Or you’d say something clever (“I like what I like”)

But can it be so simple?


You’re a class act

You make it look so easy

Today it’s vodka

Tomorrow a cigar

Then an obscure ingredient (“Ooh, I never heard of that one before!” we say with delight)

Top it all off with a philosophy you found around the corner.


It’s incredible, all these tricks up your sleeve

We’re dazzled by the impressions you leave

You don’t have more than us

But you’re a man of distinction

And that’s enough.



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wow nice one, thanks for sharing

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