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23 January 2012

How to Teach Social Structure

One of the most difficult concepts to teach college freshpersons and sophomores is Social Structure. It's a major hurdle for those uninitiated to sociology. I've refined a metaphor over the years, though, that I think is helpful in getting the idea across successfully.

I begin by giving a textbook-type, formal definition. You can look that up for yourself or stick with your own interpretation. I find that students like to get those--especially since I don't assign a textbook--even if it doesn't really help them, but they'll furiously scribble it down anyway. I go on to juxtapose agency, which they all get because it's how they think about their lives, with social structure. "Think about the physical structure that we're in right now, this building," I tell them. "There are doors, locks, hallways, walls, windows--all things that constrain or limit your movement. When I showed up for class, you were all waiting patiently in the hall. Because of your identity--students--you could not enter the classroom because you were not given a key. I, on the other hand, because of my identity--faculty--have a key. You may have wanted to get into the room, but your will was constrained. Now, imagine if each of the classrooms in this building represented access to something that you might want, like a good education or a job or wealth. All of us might desire access to those rooms, but not all of us have the key. Because you all know me, you have access to a person who has the key and might be persuaded to grant you access [e.g. social capital, social networks]. Just like with a physical structure, social structure limits and constrains our behavior in ways that we often don't recognize. Because many of us are privileged enough to have the keys to things like a college education, we assume that it is just a matter of choosing to enter the room; we fail to appreciate that others might be disadvantaged, and we sometimes mistakenly decide that it's their own fault [e.g. attribution error]." I usually end by explaining that even though social structure is very resilient and enduring, with enough resources or consensus, society can "remodel." We can change social structure.

Postscript: For the first time, I'm tagging something on Twitter with the #teachsoc and #learnsoc hashtags that Nathan Palmer (@sociologysource) has suggested. I'm not entirely confident that this fits there.

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