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Nate Palmer is the primary author of Sociology Source, the editor of SociologyInFocus.com, the creator of SociologySounds.com, and a lecturer of sociology at Georgia Southern University.
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Monday
Jul282014

Defining Intuitive Sociology

What do we call sociological research done by untrained sociologists?

In it’s simplest form sociological research is nothing more than the making and testing of hypotheses about the social world (i.e. groups of people, institutions, culture, etc.). We all do that every day. You can’t make sense of the world without doing informal sociological research. So what do we call this untrained sociological research?

What I’m talking about is not common sense. As Mathesin (1989) points out, common sense is a body of knowledge, not a methodology. What I want to talk about is the methodology people use everyday to explore the social world. To be clear, I’m talking about the non-systematic observations of anecdotal evidence, hearsay, and media reports used to draw conclusions about the social world. What should we call that?

We should call it intuitive sociology.

By definition intuition means “The ability to understand something immediately, without the need for conscious reasoning”. Furthermore, unlike scientific reasoning, intuition draws its conclusions, “without the use of rational processes”. Intuition is also BFF with the confirmation bias, as it’s conclusions are often drawn “based on or agreeing with what is known or understood without any proof or evidence”.

Therefore I define Intuitive Sociology as the non-systematic, non-empirical process of making and testing hypotheses about the social world that is carried out without conscious reasoning. The findings from this methodology are often selected based on the prior beliefs and/or needs of the individual using the approach.

Why Intuitive Sociology Matters

Intuitive sociology matters because it is what our students bring with them into our class room. The first challenge any sociology teacher faces is convincing students that a rigorous, conscious, rational, empirical methodology offers them something that their intuitive sociology methods cannot. You have to show them that intuitive sociology is flawed and produces a vision of the world that is often inaccurate. You have to give them “new eyes” to see the world around them again for the first time.

Our students will spend the entire semester going back and forth between their intuitive and scientific sociological methodologies. They will waffle between anecdotal and empirical evidence. Keeping this in mind can help us be more empathetic and patient teachers.

Intuition is Flawed, Science is Flawed

Sociology is not a religion (to Comte’s chagrin). Obviously, sociology like all scientific endeavors is also flawed. Any first semester grad student can rail on the subjectivity of science, but I’ll spare you as I’m guessing you already know the deal. Empirical methods cannot give us the “Truth”, but they can provide us with a perspective that intuitive methods cannot.

We also need to honor the experiences of our students. Shaming their use of intuition or ridiculing their common sense is a counterproductive approach to teaching. We should not present sociology as diametrically opposed to intuition and common sense because in reality they are interconnected, but that’s a topic for another day. I think the best we can hope for our students is that when they leave our classes they will find ways to use their sociological imaginations in conjunction with their intuition and common sense.

Monday
Jun092014

REVIEW: The Next America by Paul Taylor

The Next America by Paul Taylor is an outstanding and approachable book that I plan on using in my sociology classes this fall. The book is a tour de force of social statistics. This is no surprise given that it was written by the Executive Vice President of the Pew Research Center Paul Taylor.

What makes this book so outstanding is how it manages to integrate sociological research with Pew studies, while at the same time never overwhelming the reader with a stats attack. If you want to show your students how to write and explain data, this is the book for you. Taylor lowers the on ramp to social statistic and demography and presents a picture of the United States as an ever changing social system full of surprises. Statistics are used to dispel a myth of common sense, to highlight a piece of the American mosaic, or to help the reader make sense of a seemingly chaotic social world.

As the book’s title alludes to, Taylor is primarily interested with how birth cohort affects perceptions, attitudes, and behaviors. In each chapter the data is segmented by each of the living generations (Greatest Generation -> Silents -> Boomers -> Xers -> Millennials). After reading a few pages, the reader can’t help but see that our perceptions of the world are guided by the historical moment we live in and have lived through. In other words, this book is amazing at showing how historical context affects an individual’s perception of the world around them. As I’ve recently lamented many of our students intuitive understanding of the social world is built upon an ahistorical framework. I am hoping that a text like Next America will pry open my students’ minds to the role historical timing plays in their lives.

While the dramatic title would have you believe this book is all about the “looming generational showdown”, that was really only the focus of 3 chapters. The rest of the book looked at how the different generations felt and behaved on issues like marriage, religion, immigration, racial inequality, and use of digital technology. If you are looking for a quick introduction to the sociological research on any of these issues, this book is hard to beat. In this way the book serves as a public facing edition of the Annual Review of Sociology.

As a bonus, Taylor was interviewed by Jon Stewart about Next America. This short (6 min) clip will be a great way to introduce the book and the author to my students this fall.

Taylor’s work is strongest when it focuses on sharing the wealth of demographics and social data points. When Taylor strays into drawing conclusions and predicating the future the results are a mixed bag. While this book uses a lot of sociological data it is not a sociological book. At times I winced as Taylor espoused the dominant ideology (e.g. racism for the most part is a thing of the past). To his credit, Taylor often presented data that challenged these dominant ideologies. To his discredit, these contradictions were rarely acknowledged and I anticipate having a few confused students. All that said, science is often a contradictory process, so dealing with conflicting arguments is a skill that I hope to develop in my students.

This book is a winner and I plan on using it for at least the next few years. The curated presentation of real time social data that this book offers alone warrants your consideration.

Monday
May122014

I Need Your Help!

Dear readers,

I need your help. I can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed sharing my ideas & resources with you here at Sociology Source, but now it’s time for me to ask for something in return. I am collecting data on how sociology educators are using the Internet to do their jobs. I’d like you to take my survey.

You can take this survey by clicking this link: https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/2G5TXS2

But wait! I have one more favor to ask of you. I need you to help me get the word out about this study. Tweet the link. Post it to your Facebook wall. Email the link to your colleagues. Do whatever you can to help us get the word out.

Thank you in advance for your help! Nate

Monday
Apr282014

Saying No to the "Giant Mound of Cocaine for the Ego"

***Breaking Bad SPOILER ALERT***

“I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. I was really… I was alive”

– Walter White.

I could give the same reasons for why I lecture as much as I do. Standing in front of a room full of people ready to hear what you have to say is exhilarating.[1] There aren’t too many places left where a person can get a group’s relatively undivided attention. It’s nice to feel heard. It’s fun to tell jokes to a room desperate for a laugh. It’s easy to feel really smart and competent explaining entry level concepts to beginning learners. We all have egos and for some of us, myself included, the classroom is a space to “fill our buckets” as my 6 year old would say.

Despite pulling Walter White into this conversation, I don’t think there is anything wrong with enjoying teaching. And I don’t think there is anything shameful about enjoying feeling competent and proud of the work you are doing, especially if you feel the work you are doing is an important social good.

The problem with lecturing is that it’s not the right tool for every pedagogical task and mono-strategy teaching has limitations. What we’re really talking about here is the “sage on the stage” vs. “guide on the side” divide. The research on learning finds that getting your students writing, discussing, or otherwise actively involved during class time increases how much they learn (Ambrose et al. 2010) or as the saying goes, “the one doing the work, is the one doing the learning.”

Many teachers struggle to develop alternatives to lecturing. But this can easily be overcome by reading books like Classroom Assessment Techniques, Student Engagement Techniques, Active Learning, and Collaborative Learning Techniques that are full of ready-made student driven learning activities.

Even if you removed every barrier and made switching to a student-centered teaching style as easy as possible, many of us still wouldn’t do it. Because we like lecturing. We are good at it. It makes us feel alive.

I once heard Annie Lamott, a successful author, say that reading the positive reviews of her books was like “a giant mound of cocaine for the ego”. She went on to say that to become a good writer you have to deny yourself these mounds of cocaine and simply focus on the work of writing. Maybe the exact same thing could be said about forgoing the “giant mound of cocaine for the ego” that is lecturing and being the “sage on the stage”.


  1. It can also be terrifying, but after you’ve taught for a handful of years, you start to feel competent and centered.  ↩

Monday
Apr212014

Teaching Social Change & Aligning Goals with Assignments

I want my students to see that social change isn’t magic. That it is a social process directed by social forces. I want them to know that previous historical events often serve as antecedents to change. And finally I want them to experience how learning about the past can help us better understand our present and predict our future. These are the goals I set for myself every time I teach my Social Change class.

I pair these with the goals I have for every class I teach. For instance, I always want my students to learn about the scientific method, how to find and read peer-reviewed research, and how to write like a sociologist. Lastly, I want my students to develop the skill of creatively solving interesting problems because that it what they will be doing every day of their professional career. I always tell my students, if a question can be answered with a google search, no one will pay you to answer it.

“Align Your Goals With Your Assessments!”

Everyone tells us to align our teaching goals with what we are doing in the classroom and with the graded assessments. That is excellent advice and I think it’s safe to say we all aspire to have our goals, classroom activities, and assessments aligned. However, in reality it’s really hard to get all of your ducks in a row.

This semester I worked really hard to ensure that my student learning outcomes (SLOs) aligned with the written papers I assigned my students. Today I want to 1. give everyone a copy of my assignments and 2. discuss how I worked to get my goals and my assessments in line.

Student Learning Outcomes:

By the end of this class students will be able to…

  1. Analyze a social change event using sociological concepts/tools like social/historical contexts, social structure, sociological theory, materialist/idealist factors, etc.
  2. Answer a social change research question using peer-reviewed research. (aka think and write like a sociologist).
  3. Design a Direct action campaign to alter the power relations surrounding a social issue (aka creatively solve interesting social problems).

Download All 3 Papers Here

Paper 1: Analyze a Social Change Event

I decided to focus my class around one single example of social change: mass incarceration. I had my students read the first 2 chapters of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. Alexander (2010) is making a clear argument that the War on Drugs (WoD) policies have recreated the racial caste system that has been with the United States since slavery. She walks the reader from slavery to vagrancy laws to Jim Crow laws to WoD polices arguing that each instance was a mutation of the prior system of oppression.

I ask my students to write down all of the social antecedents they see in the assigned two chapters. Then we worked together to create a list of antecedents (download here). The next day in class I draw a big time line across the double-wide white board at the front of the room. We worked together to fill the timeline with all of the crucial events and other social antecedents. With their antecedent list and timeline in hand, I have my students apply everything we’ve learned about social change from the rest of the class to the WoD and mass incarceration in paper 1.

Paper 2: Think & Write Like a Sociologist

One of the key ideas of social change is that if something hasn’t changed yet, then it’s probably because somebody else doesn’t want it changed. That’s my one sentence summary of Darhendorf’s (1959) Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society. Really what we’re talking about here is hegemony and the social forces that maintain the status quo. I want my students to be able to identify those on each side of the WoD issue. I also want my students to develop their skills at doing literature reviews and using empirical evidence to support their arguments. Paper 2 combines both of these into a simple research paper.

Paper 3: Creatively Solve Interesting Problems

What good is knowing how things change if you don’t learn how to create some change yourself along the way? The book Organizing for Social Change is a workbook that guides you step-by-step through the process of fighting for social justice. The first two chapters explain what direct action organizing is and then the rest of the book is a series of worksheets and tasks to get your activist campaign off the ground. In paper 3 my students are challenged to plan a direct action campaign to mitigate the consequences of the WoD polices and mass incarceration in general.

This assignment is a “choose-your-own-adventure” style assignment. Students have to come up with their own ideas and then flesh out their campaign from there. As I write my students are working on this paper right now. Not a day has gone by that a student hasn’t said, “This is hard! I can’t think of any good ideas.” To which I always say, “Excellent! It sounds like you are doing the hard work of learning right now. Keep it up.”

While it might sound like I am enjoying their anguish, in reality I don’t. But I know that frustration, anger, and exhaustion are all common side effects of learning. Too often writing assignments are paint-by-numbers style activities. Students have grown accustomed to being told exactly what to write about, so open assignments like this give student the opportunity to creatively solve interesting problems.