The Teaching of Sociology

I believe that there is a good case for the teaching of every social science. In particular I support the call for the teaching of sociology to all students in Grade 12 and above. At least one year of study will provide students with the knowledge and skills that will contribute toward their social and academic development. However, it can be offered as an elective to all others who wished to pursue it at a higher level of study. In some countries sociology is taught to students who are 16 and over on a voluntarily basis. I think it is much too important to be treated in this manner.

The Nature of Sociology

Sociology has been defined as many things. In its embryonic stages its founder Comte (1798-1857) thought it to be a natural science no different from biology, chemistry or physics. He believed that it was possible to predict human behavior and so control it in much the same way natural scientists controlled matter. Later on Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), another French sociologist, pioneered the use of statistical analysis in the study of suicide, a social phenomenon. Durkheim argued that in this way it was possible to determine the causal and correlation (al) relationships that exist between and among social variables. These he called ‘social facts.’ Suicide and marriage are examples of social facts because they have an existence outside the individual and their rates can be quantified so that their impact on human behavior can be ascertained via the use of inductive approaches.

Sometime later in Germany Max Weber (1964-1920) launched a scathing counter attack against the use of statistics in the study of human behavior. He claimed that the true goal of sociology is verstehen-interpretive understanding of the procedures people use to understand others during their interactions with them. In this way he provided the impetus for the development of the hermeneutic approach in sociology which proposed that the discipline was rather a social science aimed at understanding how behavior was understood using direct and indirect observation of social phenomena. Many others such as George Herbert Mead, Herbert Blumer and Alfred Schutz have followed Weber’s lead and have promulgated the belief that interpretive approaches and perspectives such as Symbolic Interactionism and Phenomenology.

During the 1950s a group of French philosophers (postmodernists) embarked upon a severe critique of meta- cognition or the thinking of generalizability. This has been the general or overarching principle of both the natural and social science dogmas. The main similarity between them is the proclivity to generalize about the nature and direction of human behavior. This has influenced the writings of others such as Lyotard and de Baudrillard whose works have been applied to the study of sociology. They have argued that in contemporary times (especially since WWII) perspectives such as Marxism have become irrelevant to our understanding of social life. For them life has become centered round signs and symbols. Material goods only become important in so far as they convey specific meanings- signs and symbols. Language is ever more important since it is oft times used to perpetuate a duality. For example the sexual power duality is reproduced in society through language. Because of the verbal portrayal of differences in power between men and women, women are perceived as evil and bad and men as good and rational and this acts as a form of legitimization of sexual politics.

As a direct consequent of these three major debates about the nature of sociology it is extremely difficult to define sociology with any degree of certainty. We know more about what it is not rather than what it in actuality is. Despite this though there is an informal consensus of sorts among its adherents purporting that sociology is a social science in much the same way that psychology, anthropology, economics and political science are.

I have even noted that not much is taking place in changing the face of sociology. It has become stagnated not merely because of the centrality of classical themes such as the role of the bourgeoisie in modern capitalism and the social factors contributing to structured inequality.

Additionally not much has taken place by way of creative innovations in methodological, theoretical and practical shifts or focuses. Despite this drawback though the discipline retains much relevance to social life and should be taught formally in all schools at least from Grade 12.

Some Benefits of Teaching Sociology

These are based on my experience in teaching sociology at advanced level (Grade 13 and higher) for over 10 years in the island of Trinidad.

It facilitates the all round development of the learner (providing ample opportunity for cognitive, affective and psychomotor development).
Students learn analytical skills which help them appreciate the nature of social structure and individual interaction both between and within societies (most importantly theirs)

An example of this is de-constructing or analyzing issues or problems

By practicing essay writing they (students) learn to organize and structure ideas logically (sequentially and chronologically if necessary). This is significant for building synthesis and critical thinking skills.
Skills of note-taking and note-making are enhanced. However, those of the latter should be emphasized since they allow for the development of student autonomy.
Students are allowed the opportunity to plan (for writing) and engage in abstract problem solving skills and competencies.
Twentieth-first century skills such as cooperation, team-work and project management can be and are developed and enhanced.
It provides opportunity for the enhancement of communicative competence since students participate in debates and discussion about research studies, theories and perspectives.
Students are impelled to become more culturally relative and less ethnocentric since they come to appreciate that culture cannot and should not be judged in relation to another. It meets the needs of a particular society or subgroup.
It teaches them about the nature and causes and consequences of different forms of inequality such as sex and gender, race/ethnicity, social class and age. Additionally, they learn to become empathetic about marginalized groups and individuals.
Students develop citizenship values and attitudes, and decision-making. This helps them to function effectively as members of democratic societies.
It allows for the appreciation of diversity in the presentation of ‘social reality’ so that they come to perceive the differences between universal and culturally specific features of social life.
It provides opportunity to view knowledge in a holistic way since sociology is so multi-disciplinary as is social work for instance.

Some Suggestions for the Effective Teaching of Sociology

Use students’ experience to help them connect the theories to real world or life experiences.
Use a combination of teacher-centered and student-centered approaches. Teacher-centered methods such as lecturing and note-giving are better to use for introducing topics, concepts and issues before deep understanding is developed via the use of child-centered methods such as projects, group work and field work.
Use a variety of resources in the same lesson. Pictures, diagrams and audio material are excellent.
Use cooperative learning strategies such as jig-saw to deepen student understanding and develop team work and shared responsibility.
Provide opportunity for problem-based learning in which students will solve real world issues through the collection of empirical data and analysis of findings from research.
Use the lecture method wisely. Do not talk for more than 15 minutes at any one time. Allow lectures to be interrupted by student activity since they like getting involved and having a say.
Employ a variety of assessment techniques in your practice such as portfolios, graphic organizers, poetry and song and role-plays.
Provide plenty of opportunity for the analysis of statistical data and report findings via graphs, tables, pictures etc.
Plan and provide for student participation in activities where students will simulate qualitative data collection techniques such as in-depth interviewing and systematic participant observation.
Provide greater opportunity for student dialogue and always provide constructive feedback.
Examine the best ways of helping students grow mentally, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually.
Invite guest speaker experts to shed light on diverse issues related to the content and everyday life.
Make a written plan of the activities for each lesson and change them only if necessary.
Use test and exam results to diagnose performance and provide accurate measurement of student performance.
Test only what was taught in terms of content and skills.
Practice chunking the content by breaking up large amounts into smaller manageable units in accordance to students’ age and maturity levels.
Ensure students participate in rubric and mark scheme design. This will assist them to understand the standards and benchmarks for academic excellence.
Cater for a variety of learning styles in your lessons. Knowledge of the differentiated classroom is an asset to good teaching.
Be firm but flexible.
Always move from the known to the unknown. Emphasise should be placed on effective concept teaching.

I proffer the suggestion that students should be exposed to an introductory course in the sociology since it will assist them in developing a variety of skills, talents and competences which are critical for life in a modern society.

This article sought to provide some useful guidance for teachers of sociology at any level of academia. It began with summation of the three major polemics in the nature of sociology namely positivist, interpretivist and postmodern. Following this it provided a rationale for its inclusion in the high school or college curriculum and ended by examining some guidelines or useful tips for teaching sociology

Bennie Berkeley has attained PhD in sociology with high commendation from the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine. At present he lectures in sociology courses namely Introduction to Sociology and Caribbean Social Structure. Additionally, he conducts methodology seminars for graduate students about to embark upon their research projects in social work and sociology. He supervises a number of students from a cross section of the social sciences including sociology (criminology), social work and mediation studies.