Building foundational knowledge is essential in introductory sociology courses. But how do you invite students to actually ‘do’ sociology? At our virtual event, Dr. Mellisa Holtzman and Dr. Robert Brym, authors of a Top Hat Interactive eText—Sociology: Think Outside the Book—shared techniques to deepen engagement and build every student’s sociological imagination. Here’s how you can help students develop essential skills and ensure they see the utility of sociological theory in the real world.

→ Access the webinar recording on-demand

Demystify the value of the ‘sociological imagination’

Let’s review a basic sociological principle—the ‘sociological imagination.’ C. Wright Mills, renowned social theorist, believed that this framework would allow individuals to connect their personal experiences to historical events and current sociocultural structures. Take the process of marriage, for example. Dr. Holtzman, Professor of Sociology at Ball State University, reminds us that choosing a life partner isn’t so much a personal decision. Putting the framework of the sociological imagination to use, she shares how several sociocultural factors—including age, ethnicity and even educational level—influence our ability to find a compatible partner.

As the authors remind us, even the most experienced educators struggle to cultivate a sociological mindset among students. “When I first started teaching, the most difficult task was to get students to understand the purpose of theory. They had no way to determine which were most valid. I took it on myself to clarify how sociologists construct and test theories using research,” shared Dr. Brym, who serves as Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto. Dr. Holtzman echoes this sentiment. Her goal is to remind students that their life experiences aren’t solely influenced by individual acts, but plenty of environmental and socio-cultural factors. Below, they share three ways you can help hone students’ sociological imagination with an emphasis on real-world learning.

1. Start by analyzing the mundane

Why do you choose to wear brand name clothing? What prompts you to stream your favorite artist’s new album on Spotify? Ask students to critically analyze things that they may overlook daily. Doing so will help pique their curiosity and activate their critical thinking and evaluation skills. More importantly, students will begin forming their own sociological imagination by uncovering how their likes and dislikes are influenced by cultural norms.

Dr. Holtzman returns to her example of choosing a romantic partner. In their Interactive eText, the authors implore students to uncover all contributing factors behind mate selection. “The activity begins with information about romantic love, followed by data on dating trends. All of this helps develop students’ sociological imagination because it helps them recognize the role society plays in who people choose to partner with,” she shares.

2. Fuel engagement by asking students to reflect on personal experiences

As Dr. Brym can attest, revealing knowledge gaps can be a powerful way to motivate students throughout their educational journey. The following diagram is a useful tool to help summarize the relationship between theory and research. “Students can participate in the process of discovery. I’ve found that my students, on the whole, are genuinely relieved and excited to learn about their previously hidden power,” he says.

Dr. Brym presents the infamous suicide study, offered by sociologist Emile Durkheim, as a way of tapping into higher-order thinking. As a refresher, the study finds that in 19th century France, men were four times more likely to commit suicide than women. The reasoning: women’s ties were seemingly stronger to society than men, implying that higher solidarity yields a lower suicide rate. Dr. Brym shares three steps you can take to move from presenting a longstanding theoretical study to promoting application.

  • Recall: Ask students to recall specific points associated with your presented theory. These might include simple multiple choice questions such as “which of the following is the most precise description of Dukheim’s focus in his study of suicide?”
  • Apply: Encourage students to translate parts of your sociological theory to the real world. You might pose an open-ended question such as “how well does Durkheim’s theory explain the variation in the suicide rate by race and ethnicity in the United States?” The process also asks students to test the validity of your theory in a new setting.
  • Create: The final step invites students to create their own theoretical reasoning to explain certain phenomena. For instance, you might ask students to explain why discrimination rates and suicide rates are higher among Native Americans compared to any other ethnic group in the U.S.

3. Support a culture of learning by doing

Research paints a clear picture. When students actively participate in their learning, they simultaneously solidify their own knowledge. Active learning couldn’t be more important for faculty teaching introductory level courses—classes in which many non-major students typically enroll for credit. How exactly do you design sociology assignments that bridge the gap between knowledge and practice? Dr. Holtzman offers her advice for getting started. “I will frequently ask students to bring a unique artifact to class to illustrate the concept of material culture. A colleague of mine asks students to photograph images of their everyday lives and tweet about how it relates to sociology. As an assignment, it helps them develop their sociological imagination,” she outlines.

Dr. Brym and Dr. Holtzman lean heavily on low-stakes, formative assessment as an avenue for helping students hone essential skills. Their Interactive eText is packed with integrated polls that allow students to consider the broader significance of sociological theory. “The questions prompt students to think about their own perspectives and compare them with those of their classmates. They’re a great way to prompt discussion,” Dr. Holtzman emphasizes.

About Sociology: Think Outside the Book

Sociology: Think Outside the Book is designed to help students understand how to ‘do’ sociology. With diverse perspectives, students are invited to broaden their thinking and test their understanding through theory testing, debate and dynamic, integrated assessments. Request a copy of the book now.

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