All posts by alex

ATT4: Sociology’s Major Theoretical Perspectives

This one is a post I sent to students in an online course to help them understand a key matter in introductory sociology: the distinction between some core theoretical perspectives. As an anthropologist, I’m often struck, while teaching introductory sociology, how consistently these perspectives come up. This specific course is based very directly on Richard T. Schaefer’s Sociology: A Brief Introduction. So a few points are specific to that book (and the exam students will take is based on that textbook). But I’ve seen a number of other textbooks in introductory sociology, using some as inspiration for questions in other exams or as required rteadings in other courses: the very same perspectives come up all the time.
Not that other disciplines don’t have this. But I really don’t see anything similar in cultural anthropology even though introductory courses in anthropology, like introductory sociology, is very standardized in terms of chapter headings.
The reason I post here as a tidbit, apart from the fact that I happen to think it could be useful for other people, is that there’s a teaching angle to this.
This is a course which is really based on content. It’s a “GenEd” course for nurses at a school of health professions associated with a health system with five hospitals in Texas. What I’m doing here, in terms of “instruction,” is very different from my usual teaching strategies in that it’s very directly related to an exam. I usually wait until my last interactions with students before I build the exam, so that I don’t “teach the exam.” In this case, though, these theoretical perspectives are so fundamental that it’s very far from telling them about things they should memorize. Besides, it’s easy enough to do a copy-paste like this and it might encourage me to post more tidbits (something which has been on my mind, recently).
Making Sense of Major Theoretical Perspectives (MTPs)
As I’ve said so many times, these perspectives are really key to introductory sociology. And they’re really not that hard to spot, once you get the differences. So I’ll give you a few tricks. This isn’t a thorough analysis of their differences but kind of a “cheat sheet.” Of course, you can’t use cheat sheets (or any documentation) on exams. But if you understand what it’s about, at this point, you won’t need a cheat sheet.
So, the Major Theoretical Perspectives.


To summarize:

  • Functionalism
  • Conflict Theory
  • Interactionism

With these three, you can understand a lot of what’s going on in sociology. Because they’re associated with Durkheim, Marx, and Weber, I tend to call them the “WMDs.” (DMW would also work, and it vaguely sounds like a car manufacturer, but “WMD” makes the point more strongly.)
You could argue that feminism is the fourth one and I’ll talk about it But the first three are what can guide you.
One thing to notice is that the order I listed them is pretty much the order in which they appear in most places. Not that they’re really in chronological order. But there’s a notion that conflict theory was a response to functionalism and that interactionism contextualizes the other two.

Recognizing Functionalism

  • As I hinted in another post, any mention of “stability” should give you a clue that it’s probably functionalism. Functionalism is about seeing society as a funcitoning system: stable, balanced, durable. A well-oiled machine (the mechanical metaphor) or a living organism (the organic metaphor). In a functionalist’s view, everything in society has a purpose and the overall purpose is the functioning of the society as a whole.
  • You recognize the early signs of functionalism in Auguste Comte (the guy who coined the term «sociologie» which is the origin of “sociology”) but Émile Durkheim was pretty much the founder of modern, functionalist sociology. In the US, Talcott Parsons and his “equilibrium theory” are the most obvious examples of sociological functionalism. In a way, the 1950s were the heyday of functionalism in North American social sciences.
  • Functionalists make models which are very “scientistic.” In some forms of functionalism, you even perceived society as a “lab.”

Recognizing Conflict

  • People perceive “conflict theory” as a critique of functionalism. Conflict theory is all about inequalities. You see some comment about problems associated with inequality, exploitation, poverty, classes, chances are it has to do with conflict theory. For conflict theorists, social life is a constant struggle between haves and have-nots, those who are given access to resources and those who are unlikely to ever get much resources. This goes for any kind of inequality: class inequality, inequality based on gender, inequality based on race, global inequality…
  • The “struggle of classes” angle makes it clear that many of these have to do with Karl Marx. Because other people have used ideas from Marx, it’s not uncommon to call the conflict theory “Marxian” to distinguish it from Marxism in the political domain. Schaefer tends to use “Marxist” for both, which can get quite confusing (for one thing, many conflict theorists are against governments).
  • In some ways, conflict theory became mainstream with the human rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Unsurprisingly, some of the most vocal activists in sociology can be heard using concepts from conflict theory.

Recognizing Interaction

  • While functionalists and conflict theorists debate one another, there are sociologists on the sidelines who focus on social behaviors, relationships, and meanings. Interactionism (or “symbolic interactionism,” as it’s often called) is recognized as a micro-level analysis and it’s one which may not be that interested in direct causal links of the big machine or big struggle types. It’s more about what happens between individuals and how things can make sense.
  • Interactionism is very recognizable in labeling theory or in the dramaturgical approach. But some people (including Schaefer) associate it with Max Weber. Weber also did work which was closer to macro-level analysis (including what he’s written about the Protestant Work Ethic, or PWE). But interactionists do turn to Weber as more of an inspiration than Durkheim or Marx.
  • Interactionism is very obvious in the work of many contemporary sociologists but it’d be difficult to say that it’s ever become dominant, in sociology.
  • Interactionists often do things which are close to ethnography, including participant-observation.

The Feminist Angle

Occasionally, people will propose feminism as a fourth member of the MTP group. Schaefer doesn’t really do it like that. In fact, sociological feminism is pretty much a reply to the WMDs. It’s much more clearly influenced by conflict theory, to the extent that some might think of feminism in sociology as a part of conflict theory. In fact, some early feminists in sociology saw women as suffering from gender inequality in pretty much the same terms as class inequality. But feminists also criticized conflict theory as exhibiting machismo at many phases in its development. Overall, feminism has been among the most important changes in the history of sociology during the 20th Century. As the notion that women and men should have equal rights, feminism is very strong throughout the discipline.

Potential Pitfalls

Now, this is all a very simplistic model. But I do think it helps, if you don’t get stuck in it. Which is probably why most introductory textbooks (including Schaefer’s) present some version of it. But you may still run into problems if you follow it blindly.
Here are a few things to be aware of:

  • Nowadays, sociologists mix and match ideas from these MTPs and it’s rare to find a “pure” functionalist, a die-hard conflict theorist, or an exclusive interactionist. Feminists are even more active in terms of using tools and concepts from diverse perspectives.
  • Because functionalism and conflict theory are both working at the macro-level, they often have more in common than one might think.
  • Though functionalism mostly talks about stability, they also talk about transition and adaptation. Going from one stable system to another causes some social problems, which may make them sound like conflict theorists.
  • Similarly, the notion of a “dysfunction” may sound like a conflict theory idea, since it has to do with social problems and even with inequality. But the perspective is still that societies “work.”
  • Many broad sociological concepts are carried across all MTPs. For instance, sociologists in general care about social roles. But the way people handle roles will depend on their major theoretical orientation. For instance, an interactionist will see how people “play” their roles in society, what it means to them. A conflict theorist might emphasize that roles are related to statuses and that statuses are often ascribed. Unsurprisingly, a feminist cares a lot about gender roles and might talk about the fact that these roles can be quite diverse, so that there are many ways to be a woman or to be a man. Finally, a funcitonalist is likely to see the set of roles played by different people in society as complementary to one another: society “needs” criminals, CEOs, students, sick people, homemakers, cousins, nurses…
  • Just so you know, there’s no such thing as a “global perspective” in Schaefer’s book. Sure, sociologists talk about globalization and about global inequalities. Immanuel Wallerstein proposed the World System Analysis. But none of the perspectives discussed by Schaefer is labeled as the “global perspective.”

(For the most astute observers among you, it may be obvious that I’m giving you a bunch of hints about the exam. Some clues were subtler than others, but I think they can all be useful.)

ATT3: Last Minute Nugget

When I started thinking about these tidbits, something I had done in class had been at the back of my mind. It’s actually quite simple, but I found the effect rather nice.
See, in some classes, there are students who start to pack their things several minutes before the official end of the class meeting. I know several colleagues have the same problem, so “it’s not just me.” It doesn’t happen all the time or in every class, but it does happen and, when it does, it seems to spread to a significant part of the class, causing significant disruption.
Hadn’t found a way to solve this. Tried telling students about the disruptive effects of this behaviour, but that never worked. So, one class meeting, I had this very simple idea: say something important at the very end of class. That’s the last minute nugget concept.
A few moments before the end of the class meeting, I warned students that I would end the class with something which should be on the exam. Obviously, they started paying a lot of attention. I said a single sentence which encapsulated a rather important and potentially complex conceptual link. I said this only once and I didn’t address the same issue in class at another point. Students who really understood the material could answer a question about this issue even without my “nugget.” Since I podcast my courses, everyone has access to that nugget, even if they weren’t in class at that point. Besides, if students do any kind of peer-learning, the nugget can easily be shared through the group. Bottomline: my question on this was going to be fair and students knew it. A student asked me for clarification and when I refused, it made it sound almost like a game.
In fact, that nugget was rather effective, I think, because it was somewhat more complex than other things I’d usually address more fully. And thinking about this nugget could be an efficient way to focus on understanding instead of on remembering. I hadn’t really prepared it so much in advance but it made a lot of sense when I said it.
And I did the same thing in other class meetings from the same course. Just a few times, but it was enough to change the dynamic and students were fairly attentive at the end of class meeting from this point on.
It may sound like I simply taught them a lesson but I think it’s more than that. It changed something about my teaching.

RIEP7: Teaching Ethnography

RIEP7: Teaching Ethnography

ATT2: Study Advice to my Students

I posted the following on a forum in my “ANTH202/4B Introduction to Culture” course and realized it might be useful for other people. So I decided to post it here, in the spirit of “Alex’s Teaching Tips.” Some parts are specific to this course and most of it is about the way I teach, but it may still make some sense.

For a tiny bit of context: the midterm is tomorrow. Through the first part of the semester, I’ve tried to give other kinds of tips. This post was meant as a way to put things in perspective. I sent it to a forum called “Mid-Term Preparation.”

Someone asked for advice on exam prep. It’s a bit late for this and I want to be fair to everyone in the same way, so I’ll answer with a general forum post. At other points, I was (and will be) able to give customized advice, based on a student’s needs. But this is generic advice about preparing for an exam in one of my courses.
I’m actually somewhat torn about this. Some of you may feel even more overwhelmed while others may find this reassuring. Yet because I get the impression that it can be useful to a number of people, I’m posting this anyway.

First note that, if you’ve been doing your work and following advice I’ve already been giving you (say, by starting from the most general to the most specific or by focusing on links across the material), you probably have nothing to worry about. The exams aren’t ways to trick you but to assess your understanding of the material. There won’t be questions about specific details of the “Which anthropologist is credited with” kind. Wouldn’t make sense for an exam. Fairly useful in a self-administered quiz, not so cool on a midterm.

But, if you still worry, here are a few notes. My purpose here is to get you to “think like a cultural anthropologist,” not to make sure everyone gets high marks. But it’s clear that those who are able to think like a cultural anthropologist are also the ones who typically receive high marks on exams in a cultural anthropology course.

So, a bit more of a “procedural” advice, keeping in mind that we’re all far along in the process…

You all have, in fact, already started your exam preparation, even if you didn’t sit down to review material for the exam. The work you’ve put into the material should pay off. Keep that in mind.

So, at this point…
Go back to “the big picture,” before even glancing at any of the material. The “What have you learnt?” question. Focus on the most obvious things. It’s no secret that the course is about culture so you can think about what you now know about culture. Take notes, either in your head or in writing. Part of this should help you notice that you did learn a fair deal. This can be done quickly and almost effortlessly. You’re not trying to recreate the course in your mind. You’re just trying to pick what was most salient, what struck you. Chances are that those things are related to what’s important to understand.

Then, go through concentric circles, from the most general to the most specific. Think about the structure of the first part of the semester (class meetings and book chapters), first without any material then more specifically with the course material. You can use yesterday’s slides, for this. They’ve been reposted in a variety of formats and, though they don’t contain anything that new, they may be a useful summary.

After that, use any of your own material. If you’ve been posting journal entries in order to assess your own contributions, now may be an appropriate time to go back through them to put the course material in context. These entries weren’t meant as a study tool and that’s part of the reason they can be useful. If you’ve been taking notes while working with the book, look at these notes. Same thing with notes you may have taken in the classroom. Or anything about teamwork and individual exercises!

I would not advise you to go through the podcast recordings, at this point. Even at double-speed, it’d take you way too much time to listen to all of them and it might confuse you. But if there’s something you locate in your notes which seems like it has been discussed in class at a specific moment in time, you may be able to quickly retrieve this discussion from a podcast recording. Not something everyone is necessarily very good at, but it can be done. (Since I listen to a lot of podcasts, I’m pretty efficient at this. But it does require some practice and/or a specific type of memory.)

I also don’t advise you to take the self-quizzes, at this point. It’s very useful when you’re first learning about some concepts and you want to make sure you were paying enough attention while working with a given chapter. But it puts way too much emphasis on details and rote learning to be helpful just before an exam. At the same time, if you’ve taken those quizzes in the past and have some way to see what was unclear to you at that time (i.e., where you made mistakes), you can use this as a way to focus. As long as it’s not about details.

Using multiple-choice questions for Chapter 2 as an example… (Again, if you never took this quiz, do not take it now!)

If questions you got wrong, at the time, were about “Annette Weiner’s re-study of the Trobriand Islands” or about the indigenous group studied by Napoleon Chagnon, you shouldn’t worry about them. There will not be questions like these on the exam and it just means that these parts of the material were unclear while you were working with that chapter. No biggie. Moving on.
On the other hand, if what you got wrong was about a definition of rapport, it might be useful to look at why you got it wrong. Not because it’s so important as a concept but because you should be able to find the correct answer by elimination.
The question about the AAA’s code of ethics is also a good example, even though there won’t be negative questions on the exam and it sounds as if it’s asking about details on the AAA. If you really understood what ethics in cultural anthropology is about, it’s quite likely that you’ll know what the right answer is without knowing the first thing about the AAA (no, I don’t mean the US equivalent of the CAA wink).
One way to put it is that it’s about “common sense.” If you miss such a question, though, it’s not because you lack “common sense.” It’s that yours differs from the kind of anthropological thinking we’re talking about. In fact, with that ethics question, I could imagine a sociology student choosing “Be open about who you are and why you’re there” as what the AAA’s code does not include because there are very well-known cases where sociologists aren’t advocating this kind of transparency (even though informed consent is now a requirement in any study done with human subjects, including sociology). There are even anthropologists who have concealed their identities and we’ve talked about this in class. But I think it should be obvious from the classroom and textbook material that cultural anthropologists do seek informed consent from people with whom we work.
This part is all about those who did take the self-quizzes in the past. But I think it also helps you understand what the exam is about.

A final approach, which can still be taken at this point…
In the past, I’ve been telling you about finding links between issues and concepts. It’s still good advice, especially if you use it as a way to get yourself thinking about broader issues or if it helps you notice that you do, in fact, understand most of these. The list of glossary items is useful, in this case. Pick two items at random and, in your head, think about what you might say on their relationships to one another.
Now, this may not be for everyone either. Some of you may get lost in this while others do it “in their sleep.” That’s why I list it last.
Doing the exercise myself, using the slides from yesterday (using QuickView on my Mac, not even opening the file): “horticultural” and “negative reciprocity.” There’s an obvious link, there, but I’ll actually go toward something a bit more involved, for demonstration purposes. Horticulturalism is what we call a “subsistence strategy” and negative reciprocity has to do with “economic anthropology.” So I’m thinking about the relationships between “means of production” (in this case, how we get our food) and means of distribution (how we share resources across members of a group). It’s pretty much a “textbook case” of the kind of holistic approach Omohundro explained with the puzzle pieces. In this case, it’s about links between what we’ve called “infrastructure” and social structure. So you can quickly go very far. Or stick with what’s obvious (that both have to do with goods or that either is typical of a certain set of cultural contexts).
Again, this kind of stretch isn’t for everyone, at this point. If you try it and find it too difficult, skip it. As with physical training, not everyone can benefit from every exercise.

I very sincerely hope that this helps at least a few people and that it doesn’t have a negative effect on anyone.



ATT1: The Collaborative Syllabus

My first tidbit is actually based on something I borrowed from Quick Hits. In fact, if I remember correctly, it was described by Scott Sernau, who was one of my teaching mentors at IUSB. But I adapted it to my needs.
Simply put, I let students select topics to be covered during the semester. And I find it advantageous in some contexts.
The way I do it is quite simple. During the first week of class, I distribute a list of topics and each student has to select a limited number of them. Topics with the largest numbers of votes are added to syllabus and the coursepack is built based on this selection.

I reserve the right to merge topics. So, two topics which seemed relatively unpopular may form parts of a broader topic which can reach more students. I put topics in a sequence after they’ve been selected, to avoid some bias effects on the section process. And I typically have predetermined topics for the first few weeks of class, both as a way to make sure everyone is on the same page, especoly about basic concepts, and because it gives me more time to prepare the readings for the rest of the semester.

Some things make this technique more practical. For instance, it works well in a small seminar but it’d be very hard to do in a large textbook-based class. Where I first used it (IUSB), it was possible to build the coursepack through the semester. In fact, the electronic reserve system even allowed me to bypass the coursepack format altogether. At another place where I’ve used it (Tufts), coursepacks took enough time to build that it could only be done for a later section in the semester. I had to start with prepared material before the semester started. In other cases, including Concordia, the coursepack system is such that it’d be very impractical to use this technique unless it’s possible to meet students weeks before the course starts.
I’ve noticed a number of advantages with this technique. One is that it pushes students to engage in those broad issues of course design which give them insight into the course as a whole. Not only does it mean that students are a bit less passive, but they get a behind-the-scenes look at what teaching involves and may understand diverse things about the way topics relate to one another.
A related advantage is that students can claim ownership for a dimension of the class. Even without discussing the effects of the selection process very specifically (it’s not my thing to say “you chose the topics, don’t blame me if you don’t like them”), there’s a clear sense that te course as a whole becomes a shared responsibility.
In fact, I’ve associated this with te typical seminar structure of having individual students “responsible for” individual topics. Though everyone has to understand all the topics, each student becomes more of an expert in a given topic, often doing a presentation about it. I should elaborate on this as a separate tidbit, but it’s a common format for seminars, in some contexts. The way it works with the collaborative syllabus is that people can choose, at the same time, a series of topics they want covered and a specific topic on which they want to work. I usually try to get the student’s expertise on that topic to carry through the semester, but that part hasn’t been too effective.

Yet another thing I’ve noticed with the collaborative syllabus is that the way I explain a topic may have a large role effect on how students select them. For instance, the first time I tried this method, in a seminar about linguistic anthropology, I had semiotics as a topic. When I explained it, I mentioned zoosemiotics and associated animal language with that topic. That semester, semiotics ended up being the most popular topic in the initial vote, something which I wouldn’t have expected, had I designed the syllabus by myself, without student input.

New Feature: Alex’s Teaching Tidbits

When I created this blog, I mostly thought about using it to host a podcast but I still wanted to use it as a place where I could blog about topics related to ethnography. Originally, I called it “Headnotes: The Informal Ethnographer Blog” (HIEB) and some remnants of this old name can be found in some places. Because the method I use to distribute podcast episodes assigns the blog’s title to the podcast, I decided to change this blog’s official title to reflect the name I had decided to give my podcast. “Rapport: The Informal Ethnographer Podcast” (RIEP).
I’ll still use this blog mainly for my ethnography podcast. I’m not really getting any significant feedback about that podcast, but I don’t have any reason to stop doing it. So I’ll maintain that.

But I’ve also been meaning to blog about other things. I could post things on my main blog, but what I have in mind is more structured and that personal blog is anything but structured.

What’s funny, is that what I’m thinking about isn’t that directly related to ethnography. At least, it’s not specific to ethnography.

Basically, I want to share some ideas I have about teaching. More specifically, I want to share little bits and pieces of things I found useful in my teaching experience. Not that I consider myself a better teacher than somebody else or that I have something very unique to share. But talking about teaching is a useful way to think about what it may imply and to enhance our teaching methods. In order to, hopefully, enhance people’s learning.

I don’t really want to do meta-teaching, here: I’m not teaching teachers. My father used to do it and I have some ideas about how that’s done, but it’s not my purpose, here. So this isn’t about telling others what to do or to boast about successes. In fact, while some of the “tidbits” I have in mind may sound like pieces of advice or indications about effective strategies, I mean this feature to be about short reflections on teaching, including challenges faced or failed attempts at using a given strategy.
In fact, I tend to be wary of “tips and tricks,” especially when it comes to teaching. We all have different approaches and what may seem like the best advice to give one person might actually disrupt somebody else’s approach. What works for me may not work for you. Furthermore, what didn’t work for me may in fact be quite appropriate in your case. Either because I wasn’t effective at implementing it or because it’s not appropriate in my context.

My hope is that my tidbits will be a source of inspiration for certain people. Simply put, I just want to share. Much of blogging (and social media in general) is really about sharing thoughts and ideas. In this case, the thoughts and ideas shared will be about teaching.

Part of the inspiration for this new feature is the Quick Hits series from Indiana University‘s Faculty Colloquium on Excellence in Teaching (FACET). I don’t presume to be able to imitate the Quick Hits or produce something similar in any way, but this blog feature is my homage to that series and to FACET, which produces it.

In a sense, it’s my way of giving back to the community.

Back in 2004-2005, I received a Future Faculty Teaching Fellowship (FFTF) to teach in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Indiana University South Bend (IUSB). One important benefit of this program is that it was an opportunity to fully immerse myself in teaching. I had already taught at different institutions, but this was a time to really focus on teaching. Some resources were provided through the FFTF program while others were available at large. In the latter case, I’m mostly thinking about teaching workshops and I attended ad many as I could, during that time. I still do the same, in fact, and I’ve given a few myself. As for FFTF-specific resources, two very valuable things remain on my mind. One is a mentor at the department where I was teaching. I was lucky enough to get two inspiring teachers splitting this task between the two semesters: Becky Torstrick (who was just coming back from a year abroad on a Fullbright covering both research and teaching) and Scott Sernau (who was then chair of the department).
The FFTF also offered a chance to work as a group of fellows across diverse campuses Before the start of the academic year, we were invited to spend a weekend at something close to a retreat during which we all participated in customized sessions on a variety of topics ranging from teaching portfolios to “non-traditional students” (those who are older than the typical age range for undergraduates). It’s during that retreat that we were given copies of one of the Quick Hits books.
The FFTF also brought us together at mid-year, for a series of discussions about our experiences up to that point and as a way to welcome new fellows. That event mostly inspred me to think about a sense of continuity between teachers. Like successive cohorts of students, we were gaining from peers who came before us and had a chance to help those who would come after us. From pithy advice to exam questions, we could reciprocate.

My FFTF year wasn’t my first year of teaching but it was the start of something special in my teaching career.
And it was mostly about getting inspired, not about being told what to do.

What does this have to do with ethnography? Well, again, not much. I did talk about “Teaching Ethnography” in one episode and I do frequently mention teaching as I talk about what I do as an ethnographer. After all, though I’m getting contracts as a “freelance ethnographer” and I do take on other projects using my ethnographic background, my main job as an ethnographer is still that of a teacher in a variety of ethnographic disciplines. Since I’m now using the “Informal Ethnographer” (and “iethnographer”) identity to regroup my work activities, it all makes sense, in my mind.
Besides, my approach to teaching is itself ethnographic. Not just because I do participant-observation in teaching contexts but also because my perspective uses the same considerations as ethnographic research.
There are some things which are specific to ethnographic teaching, in the tidbits I have in mind. But I really want to discuss teaching in general, whether or not it’s applicable as a reflection (or strategy) to disciplines outside of ethnography.
How do I dare do this? Well, it’s my blog and I feel free to use it the way I want to use it.
Those posts won’t be labeled “ethnography” unless they directly relate to ethnography. They’ll all have “ATT” in heir titles, to designate them as part of “Alex’s Teaching Tidbits.” they’ll also be categorized as “Alex’s Teaching Tidbits” using this blog’s simple post taxonomy. So they should be easy to spot and skip.
I don’t have a specific plan in terms of schedule but I do have a fairly long list of potential topics, already. Not sure I’ll cover them all but it’s easy to get started.

So I’ll start.

RIEP8: Failures of Anthropology

Discussion of what I perceive to be key weaknesses in classical approaches to cultural anthropology along with an ethnographic solution.

RIEP8: Failures of Anthropology