Friday, March 9, 2012

Perspectives--One Activity

Perspectives is a wonderful aspect of sociology that I fully embrace, despite the difficulty many students may have with understanding the points of view or lenses for examining behavior.

George Carlin did some sociological comparison with baseball and football.  Although he did not use the terms, he did hit upon some key insights using the language of each sport.  I use this early when teaching perspectives to help students look beyond the obvious.

So part of using sociology is looking at everything groups and cultures do in a new way, differently than what the kids are used to--this can create quite a challenge for teachers.  So I start with the simple stuff first.

In teaching the unit, my text deals with the Functionalist Perspectives (Parsons, Merton, and Durkheim), Conflict (Weber, Mills and including a sub-category, the feminist perspective), and Symbolic Interactionist perspective.  My text also has Postmodern perspectives, but there is very little information on that.

In teaching the "Big 3," I hit upon some key tools in examining social behavior.

  • society is a stable, orderly system and everything in it serves a purpose, even if it is not apparent at first
  • manifest functions
  • latent functions (unintended purposes that were created)
example with license plates:  manifest function:  license plates were created to track vehicle registrations; latent function: license plates are collectibles


  • Who has the power?
  • How is that power shown?
  • Can there be power shifts?
  • Who stands to benefit if changes are made?

example with license plates:  The state makes car owners and renters have plates to keep track of us--that shows us the power of the state.  If we have some higher economic power, we can obtain personalized plates

Symbolic Interactionist
Including Dramaturgical Analysis (Goffman)
Life is like a play, and all the people are players--our job with sociology is to figure out the roles and what they mean
Every interaction (conversation or any time two people connect) has both a surface meaning and a deeper, more symbolic (refers to something else) meaning.

example with license plates:  every car is supposed to have one--if we have a generic one created by the state, we are simply illustrating our conformity to the role of auto-owner or renter.  If we have a personalized plate style, we are symbolically communicating our support of whatever cause the plate is showing the world.  If we have a personalized plate the has unique letter/number combinations that spell something such as "SOCTCHR," we are sending a symbolic message about who we are and that we are rich enough and clever enough to have this special plate.

As time and the semester move on, I will take these beginning views of the perspectives into much more detail.

A simple example is to use the local town parade (or a Homecoming parade for a high school or college).  First examine the roles that a parade has (have the students make a list)--these could include police cars, fire engines, a marching band (bands), a band leader, floats (including particular clubs, businesses, politicians, classes), animals, signs and other visual identifiers, cheerleaders, clowns, etc.

Each person/car/float in the parade shows levels of power and strength (first or last typically is most symbolically powerful--police and fire; frosh teams/queens first, varsity and seniors last)

Each part of the parade interacts with the cloud in prescribed ways--each keeping within the roles given to them.  The clothing that each group wears is distinctive and symbolic of the status in society/school that the people have.

So a parade is never "just" a parade.  Any social gathering is never "just" a gathering.  Our students are often uncomfortable with this aspect of perspectives, but they eventually get used to it as they develop their skills.

Other social events that they could analysis in small groups would be:

  1. professional or college football-the roles and symbolism is rich with this topic--especially with an analysis from each of the three perspectives
  2. identification and analysis of the school culture (administration, teachers, classified staff, seniors to frosh, various cliques on campus, campus events, the yearbook, etc.)

There are certainly other examples--please do add any examples and activities in the comments.

posted by
Chuck Schallhorn

1 comment:

  1. I tell students that we are going to create a guidebook for the foreign exchange students coming to our mschool. I want students to see how complicated norms can be and how they vary by group. We took everyone's ideas and debated what should go in the final version of the guidebook. I also found some info on college websites that tried to give guidelines for students coming to American colleges from other countries. It was interesting to see how other cultures view our norms, such as "Americans show the bottoms of their shoes."