September 18, 2014

A Sociological Guide for Succeeding in College

Peter_kaufmanBy Peter Kaufman

This fall, over twenty million students are enrolled in colleges and universities across the United States. Although many of these students will not major in sociology or even take a sociology course, they can still use some sociological insights to help them have an enriching college experience. Much like a post I wrote a few months ago about how sociological theory can help students after they graduate, this current post offers four sociologically-inspired maxims for successfully navigating the college terrain.

1. Develop Social Capital. Social capital is fancy sociological jargon for networking. If you think of capital as a type of resource, then social capital is having the resource of social contacts. Many sociologists have studied the importance of building social networks as a mechanism for upward mobility. One of the most famous sociological statements on this topic comes from Mark Granovetter’s article, “The Strength of Weak Ties.” Granovetter theorized that individuals are more likely to be better integrated and have more opportunities when they can tap into many “weak ties” (i.e., friends of friends of friends) instead of just relying on “strong ties” (one’s relatives and close personal contacts). Here is a short video that explains this point:


Going to college offers you a wonderful opportunity to develop and strengthen both strong and weak ties. Instead of focusing just on those with whom you live and hang out with (who are, or may soon be, strong ties), take the opportunity to spread your social network by joining groups and organizations, trying out for musical groups and theatre productions, playing on sport teams and intramurals, pledging to sororities and fraternities, or volunteering in community projects and initiatives.  Granovetter’s theory about weak ties is bolstered by research on college students has long demonstrated that students who are the most integrated socially are also the ones who are most likely to have a satisfying college experience.  

Moreover, developing social capital can pay dividends for you down the road. The people you meet in these social endeavors may not be part of your life-long inner circle; however, if they can at least “put a name to your face” then you may actually count on them (or more likely, someone they know) to grant you access or entry to a position or situation that you are seeking.  

An important weak tie that many students neglect to foster is relationships with their professors. College students typically have over thirty instructors by the time they graduate. Unfortunately, many of these students don’t even remember the names of their professors once they leave college. Developing weak ties with at least half of these professors—by further discussing the course material with them outside of class, seeking additional assistance during their office hours, asking them if they need a research assistant, and participating in departmental-sponsored events—will be useful when you are looking for letters of recommendations or referrals for employment opportunities. You need not develop a deep mentor-mentee relationship with every professor you encounter; however, it is beneficial to at least make sure your professors have some idea of who you are.

2. Develop Cultural Capital. Much like social capital, cultural capital is about acquiring resources. Here, the point is to develop cultural competency instead of a social network. The concept of cultural capital is often attributed to French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu who defined cultural capital as the hobbies, tastes, mannerisms, and styles that you learn to embrace because of the social group to which you belong. In one of his most famous books, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, Bourdieu points out that individuals in different social classes have different preferences for things such as food, hobbies, clothing, and material desires.

Social capital and cultural capital are both mechanisms of social inequality because individuals may be included or excluded based on who they know (social capital) or what cultural knowledge they demonstrate (cultural capital). Just as it is important to develop your social networks, it is also useful to become multi-culturally fluent. In other words, you should not limit yourself to the tastes and preferences of your own social group. Branch out, explore, and familiarize yourself with numerous cultural forms so that you can feel comfortable in a variety of social settings. In his book, Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul's School, Shamus Khan talks about how the wealthy kids he studied learned the importance of “ease” so that they can fit in and interact successfully with everyone from the CEO to the mid-level administrator to the janitor.

In terms of developing cultural capital, college is certainly one of the best environments to do so. On many college campuses there are endless opportunities to become a cultural chameleon. In a typical semester at the state college where I teach, you can participate in art lectures, musical performances (from hip hop to classical), ethnic celebrations and dinners, rap and spoken word competitions, comedy shows, theater productions, sporting events, outdoor pursuits, fashion shows, drag balls, and a host of other culturally diverse happenings.

Although some of these events may not seem interesting to you, by attending them you will gain the wisdom that comes with experiencing diverse cultural and leisure activities; you will feel adept at interacting with people from a range of backgrounds and different tastes; and you will be more socially integrated into the campus community. In effect, the more cultural capital you acquire, the greater the probability that you will find your college experience both more comfortable and stimulating.

Pk hiking

Photo courtesy of the author

3. Ask (Sociological) Questions. I don’t want to make the claim that sociology is the only academic discipline that encourages you to ask questions. After all, raising questions is at the heart of all intellectual inquiry. Every discipline has their own set of questions that are promoted; however, sociological questions may be particularly useful for succeeding in college. As I noted in a previous post, sociological questions focus on the larger social situation and move away from individualist explanations. These sorts of macro-level questions help us better understand the social landscape. As a result, we are more prepared to actively engage with the world—both in college and beyond.

 Although I am a strong advocate for staying in the moment and enjoying your college experience as it transpires day-to-day, there is no denying the future orientation that college elicits. During your time in college you will probably think quite a bit about such impending decisions as career, family, and places to live. Whether you realize it or not, these are useful sociological questions: Are you more interested in lifestyle or livelihood (or do you even have the privilege to choose between the two)? What does it mean to have a family? What form will your family take and when do you expect that to happen? What type of social environment do you want to be in and why?

Inquiries such as these, and especially the answers, reflect the larger social dynamics that influence your life. By asking these sorts of questions you are implicitly trying to make sense of the social world, find your place within it, and be as prepared as possible for what the future may bring. Considering these questions little-by-little as you move through college, instead of waiting until your last semester to address them, may also alleviate some of the fears and anxieties that students often face as they prepare for graduation.

4. Recognize that Success is Socially Constructed. At the risk of undermining the title of this blog, it is important to point out that how we define success is socially constructed. Social constructionism is a common theme in the Everyday Sociology Blog and this concept should be familiar to students of sociology. To say that success is socially constructed means that people define success differently depending on who they are and the social context in which they exist. In my experience advising hundreds of undergraduates, I know that some students define success as finding professions about which they are passionate; however, many of their parents may define success as getting a job that pays a lot of money.

Recognizing that you, your relatives, your peer group, and even your professors may all have a somewhat different idea of success is a useful insight. Instead of feeling limited or constrained that you have to pursue a specific major, get a specific job, and earn a specific income, you will have the flexibility to choose an alternative definition of success. In turn, this will allow you the freedom to select the major (and profession) you want to pursue.

If, for example, you define success as being socially useful and engaged with your community, then you will pursue a path of study that sets you up to achieve this version of success. However, it is unlikely that you will get to this point, or this path, if you fail to see the socially constructed nature of how success is defined.

College is a time of great opportunities and possibilities; it can also be a bit daunting and overwhelming. The advice I offer in this post is intended to maximize the potential positives and minimize the potential pitfalls. It should come as no surprise that sociology has much to offer in the way of guidance for an inspiring college experience. After all, sociology is the scientific study of social life and college is an inherently social process. But as with all social experiences, the key ingredient is being social. So if you are one of the 20 million students in college this fall, get out from behind your books, be social, and do sociology.


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sound and wonderful advice! If sociology had received the appropriate attention it deserves this guide could have been printed and distributed to kids along with their prospectus!!! Much like a user manual !

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