Sociology and Changing Times

February 28, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Things change. Watch the video (go ahead, it’s only five seconds long).

(Please ignore the offensive and irrelevant “blonde” in the title. “Secretary” would be better on all counts. )

Maybe you laughed out loud. And if your kids were in the room, maybe they asked you what was funny. Show them the video. Did they laugh? Did they get the joke? (The text that accompanies the video says that people under 40 won’t get it.)

I may use this in my class as a lead-in to the origins of sociology. Tönnies and Gemeinschaft, Durkheim and solidarity, Weber and rationalization. I always fear that students will see these thinkers as merely idle intellectuals coming up with fancy ideas and vocabulary for no other reason than to make life difficult for undergraduates a century later. I want students to see them as real people who were facing big changes, changes that they thought were important, puzzling, and even troubling.

My strategy of late has been to ask students what they think of as the most important events of the past 25-30 years. I also ask them the same question about inventions.

The list of events was slow in coming and a bit quirky:
  • The Iraq wars
  • 9/11
  • Election of Obama
  • Death of Michael Jackson (I don’t judge; I just write ’em on the board).
  • Haiti earthquake
  • Katrina
  • Tsunami of 2004 (there was a disaster chain of association)
  • Fall of the Berlin Wall
  • Formation of the European Union (from an older student, born in Europe)
They had an easier time with inventions:
  • Computers
  • The Internet
  • Cell Phones
  • iPods
  • Facebook
  • Fiberoptics
In fact, their list, although shorter, was strikingly similar to a list generated a year ago by a panel of judges at the Wharton school. (Drek too, here, has recently played this game.)

Then comes the hard part. Why are these important? In what ways have they changed, or will they change, our lives? Will we look back in 25 years and say, “Yes, the death of Michael Jackson – that changed everything,”? (When I asked this in class, the student who had contributed it agreed to take it off the list.) But even with 9/11, the question isn’t an easy one. We know we’re in a “post-9/11 world,” but how is it different from the pre-9/11 world?

The inventions were less baffling. Students thought it made a difference that you could be friends with someone thousands of miles away, someone you’d never met face to face. Or that you could form a group based on narrow interests with people you never could have met otherwise, people all over the world. But they had a hard time saying just how those changes would be important in their lives or how these things would change society.

My point was that with many of these things, we are in the same position as the early sociological thinkers. They were responding to events, chiefly the French Revolution and its legacy, and technological change, the Industrial Revolution. Their task was to come up with a way of talking about these changes, making sense of them, and figuring out their impact on how people lived their lives and thought about themselves and others.

I think the exercise was useful. Maybe some of the students saw it as just bullshitting about stuff we had no conclusions or information about. But my hope is that it gave students some appreciation of the thinkers we were going to be looking at and of the important changes that began around 1800. Some students have only the dimmest knowledge of the French Revolution or the Industrial Revolution (stuff that happened a long time ago in high school). I hope that the analogy with 9/11 and the Internet help.


Anonymous said...

That video is hilarious. I'll test it on some folks.

Anonymous said...

People under 30, maybe. Home computers didn't really take off until the 1990s.

Time_Machine said...

I laughed, and I'm only 20! Maybe it has to do with how much Mad Men I watch...