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Intro to Soc

Forthcoming in 2021, Terrible Magnificent Sociology is a revitalized approach to teaching introduction to sociology. To listen to an overview and sign up for updates, click here. Below, read about the origin of the title, how I approached decanonizing the text, and why I started with a chapter about the self.

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About the title

Any student who takes Introduction to Sociology is in for a ride. Sociology’s lessons are, in equal parts, inspiration and outrage. It’s a pleasure to master its concepts and see the world anew. But it’s painful to absorb the truth about social inequality. Harder still, perhaps, to accept that there are social forces over which we have little control.

Sociology is a delight. It’s also a gut punch.

In The Sociological Imagination, C. Wright Mills makes this observation about sociology, writing: “In many ways it is a terrible lesson; in many ways a magnificent one.” Sociology’s lessons are not just hard; they’re terrible. But learning them is not merely good; it’s magnificent. As I wrote the book, I let this quote guide me. I spared students no pain; there is brutal honesty in my book. But I did my best to buoy them with sociology’s magnificence. There’s truly nothing like it.

So it felt right, in the end, to choose a title that reflects both the pain and pleasure of developing a sociological imagination. Introducing Terrible Magnificent Sociology. A startling title meant to capture our field in all its raw glory. I can’t wait for you to see it.

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On decanonizing the Introduction to Sociology text

Writing a fresh introductory textbook is an opportunity to break old habits. One habit I wanted to break with my forthcoming book was the tendency to center the historical contributions of White male scholars. Without diminishing the importance of Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Émile Durkheim—the three White men who’ve traditionally been centered as sociology’s “founding fathers”—I wanted to elevate the contributions of early scholars who’d been sidelined, forgotten, or excluded.

Decanonization is not just the right thing to do. It will also change how students encounter our fields, especially if we decanonize our introductory courses. An inclusive canon invites all of our students—no matter their identities or life experiences—to see themselves as essential to what we do and who we are. It’s the first step toward further diversifying our fields by making sure that everyone feels welcome and at home.

In the process of writing Terrible Magnificent Sociology, however, I came to feel that dropping in a few extra names would not be enough. Decanonization required substantive changes to the pedagogy. In the hopes of helping others who are aiming to decanonize their texts and courses, this post explains the choices I made and why.

Many introduction to sociology texts begin with a short history of the field and highlights of its important scholars and their ideas. This has never felt right to me. First, it asks students to care about a history of a thing before learning about the thing itself. That’s a big ask. Second, it presents early thinkers’ ideas as if they were history, irrelevant to contemporary life.

I decided to go another way. I introduce historically important figures throughout the book at the moment their ideas intersect with the pedagogy. Harriet Martineau, for example, is discussed when introducing sociology as a science; she’s rightly credited with writing the first sociological research methods monograph in 1838 (almost 60 years before Durkheim’s). Anna Julia Cooper’s A Voice from the South: By a Black Woman of the South, published in 1892, helps introduce students to the idea of intersectionality. Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s groundbreaking research on lynching, published the same year, helps contextualize a discussion of police violence against Black people.

For all the scholars I highlight, I give relevant biographical detail. Sometimes this helps make the scholars more memorable—like in discussing Herbert Blumer’s professional football career or Erving Goffman’s atrocious poker face—but there’s a lesson here, too. Oftentimes the research interests and conclusions of historically marginalized scholars are read as indicative of “bias,” while men and White folks are believed to be more “objective.” In offering biographical context for everyone, I hope to show that all our scholarship is influenced by our lived experience.

So, yes, W.E.B. Du Bois was specifically concerned with the plight of Black people in part because he, himself, was Black. And Charlotte Perkins Gilman was concerned with women’s lives in part because she was a woman. But White male scholars are motivated by their experiences, too. Like Durkheim, whose fascination with the problem of social stability is explained by being born into a politically chaotic time in France. And Charles Horton Cooley’s articulation of the “looking glass self” was likely motivated by being shy, ill, and isolated as a child, with high-achieving parents who were quick to judge him.

Grounding scholars’ interests in their life experiences also suggests that if we want a well-rounded understanding of society, sociology needs all kinds of sociologists. I compare and contrast, for example, Max Weber’s interest in work (e.g., The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, 1905) with Marianne Weber’s interest in the family (e.g., Occupation and Marriage, 1906). It’s not a coincidence that the interests of each member of this married couple were drawn in different directions. Neither is more “biased” than the other. Moreover, I hope I make clear that understanding both work and family is more valuable sociologically than understanding just one or the other.

These implicit lessons, included throughout, ultimately bolster a more direct discussion of standpoint theory and the value of diversity, both then and now. Students first encounter the importance of “standpoint” in the introduction, in which I write:

All standpoints, especially the ones we hear less often, are important for understanding the world. Our personal biographies shape our questions, our research methods, our analysis and insights, and our conclusions. So, if we want sociology to explain the full breadth of social life, everyone has to be involved in its production.

Standpoint theory is discussed further in a module on sociological research methods. My hope, however, is that students learn this lesson passively as well as actively as they absorb the relationships between lives and research interests as they pop up throughout the book.

The field of sociology—like other academic fields—has been, and continues to be, complicit in reproducing the discriminatory environments that led to the underappreciation of previously marginalized scholars. It was hard to decide whether to emphasize this in the main text. I decided against it. That is, I don’t explain that these scholars’ contributions were ignored or erased by sociologists. Ultimately, I concluded that these scholars deserved to have their ideas recognized and appreciated separate from a discussion of sociology’s failings. I wanted them to stand toe to toe with the “founding fathers” without the mea culpa meta-commentary.

That they faced great odds is clear. I discuss how Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Anna Julia Cooper reached the heights of intellectual accomplishment after being born into the institution of slavery. I discuss W.E.B. Du Bois’s encounter with Northern racism and the Jim Crow South during Reconstruction. I explain Marianne Weber’s impressive productivity in light of unwanted domestic demands, which included taking care of an emotionally fragile husband. And the tragic death by suicide of Talcott Parsons’s brilliant and ambitious daughter, Anne Parsons, is tied (via a letter to Betty Friedan) to the oppressive expectations for White middle-class women in the 1950s. That we should be in awe of these figures is indisputable.

I embrace the importance of understanding sociology’s history, but I am betting that students will be more interested in knowing where sociology came from after they have a good grasp of what it is. A primer on the emergence and evolution of the field is available as an appendix and can be assigned whenever instructors believe it’ll be most useful. Students do learn about sociology’s exclusionary practices there, and those who pursue sociology further will have plenty of opportunity to learn more.

I wrote this book as a love letter to sociology. So, I take some liberties in presenting it as we wish it was, without being in denial of its flaws. And, to be fair, sociology is now among the most diverse of all academic fields. Accordingly, I supplement the broader inclusion of historical scholars with an even wider range of contemporary ones. I want students to see themselves in who sociologists study, but also in who sociologists are. This means discussing the research of scholars from as many demographic backgrounds as possible, but also telling the stories of sociologists who are trans, single mothers, convicted felons, U.S. immigrants, and more. No matter who our students are, and no matter what life is throwing their way, I want them to know they have a home with us.

Why I start with a chapter called “The Self”

I start the book this way with a chapter on the individual because I believe our single greatest obstacle in building genuine curiosity about sociology is students’ insistence on self-determination. Steeped in individualism, our students are told to think for themselves. They’re seen as weak if they succumb to peer pressure and stupid if persuaded by advertisements. They’re told that success in life is a matter of grit and hard work. And they understand that, if they fail, they will carry the weight of the blame.

The very premise of sociology—that our communities and societies shape who we are and what we become—violates these tenets. In our courses, we ask students to accept an alternate reality in which we’re all products of the societies we live in. This does not come easily. Two primary obstacles must be smoothed over. One is merely cognitive; the other, emotional.

After the Introduction, Chapter One—”The Self”—makes a compelling argument that this unwelcome news is true, but it also aims to ease students’ emotional resistance by cultivating awe. So, students learn about George Herbert Mead’s distinction between the “I” and the “me” and about Charles Horton Cooley’s notion of the looking glass self, for example. But also learn about the remarkable human abilities that make these things possible:

  • We have the capacity to engage in self-reflection. To be both the thinker and the thing being thought about. How neat!
  • We can recognize that other people have minds like ours. We’re aware that other people think, and we can try to imagine what they’re thinking about. How incredible!
  • We literally feel what other people feel. Our brains detect others’ emotions and reproduce those feelings inside our own minds. How extraordinary!

I show that these impressive capacities—to recognize that others think, attempt to peer into their minds, feel what they’re feeling, and wonder what they think and feel about us—are the processes out of which our individuality arises. We are individuals, of course, but we didn’t get this way without the help of others. Born in a different place, at a different time, or into a different family, we’d still be us, but we’d be a different us.

Given the mythological individual at the center of American culture, it’s fair that our students find this way of thinking about the self both confusing and disconcerting. It’s our job to show them that the truth is less grand, but infinitely more beautiful. “That’s the intriguing paradox that is the premise of sociology,” I write: “We are individuals, but we are not, have never been, and were never meant to be alone.” If we can start them off with this understanding, and help them feel inspired by it, we’ve prepared them well to embrace a sociological imagination.

Read an excerpt from Chapter One here.

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