Jessica Poling


Undergraduate Discipline


BA, Haverford College. MA, PhD, Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. Academic specialization in culture/cognition, gender, and the sociology of the body. Current research projects investigate how embodied identities and institutional contexts shape experiences of bodily change and what strategies individuals construct to rationalize corporeal disruptions. Author of peer-reviewed articles in Sociological Forum and the American Journal of Cultural Sociology, among others. Former appointments include: managing editor of Sociological Forum and instructor of sociology at Iona University. SLC 2023–

Undergraduate Courses 2024-2025


Are You a Good Witch? The Sociology of Culture and Witchcraft

Sophomore and Above, Seminar—Spring

SOCI 3011

In the 1600s, political leaders in Salem, Massachusetts, infamously executed more than 25 members accused of witchcraft. Almost 400 years later, the “satanic panic” swept across America, as parents feared for the spiritual well-being of their children. More recently, protestors in the 2017 Women’s March brandished signs reading, “We are the daughters of the witches you could not burn.” What do these disparate examples have in common? This seminar will study the “witch” as a shared cultural symbol. We will explore why the witch emerges into the American cultural zeitgeist at particular moments in history and what their emergence (and public reception) tells us about the cultural and sociopolitical contexts of our time. We will draw upon the works of theorists like Karl Marx, Antonio Gramsci, Emile Durkheim, Sylvia Federici, and Stanley Cohen to guide our discussions and explore the capitalist, hegemonic, and gendered meanings of the witch. In the latter half of the semester, students will explore contemporary literature within the sociology of culture, as well as the sociology of social movements, to understand how the witch has been simultaneously co-opted and used as a figurehead of collective resistance to these very same systems. Throughout these conversations, we will also discuss the ways in which the witch has been strategically racialized, consequently villainizing women of color and misrepresenting indigenous practices such as Voodoo or Santería. For conference, students may unpack a particular moment in history when magic or witchcraft emerged in the public discourse. Alternatively, students may explore how the witch—or another shared cultural archetype—has been used to express group identity during moments of resistance. Finally, students are encouraged to think about these topics in non-American contexts, if they so choose.


Beauty and Biolegitimacy

Open, Seminar—Fall

SOCI 3385

What does it mean to be “beautiful”? Whose bodies qualify as beautiful? This seminar will explore the social construction of beauty as a process imbued with power and violence. Our investigation begins by overviewing Michel Foucault’s concepts of “biopower” and “biolegitimacy” to understand how the state manifests social hierarchies and control through the construction of the idealized, beautiful body. We will subsequently explore in what ways beauty standards are deployed to create gendered and raced distinctions that uphold colonial powers and white supremacy. Moreover, students will study the transformation of beauty standards across time with the goal of understanding how these changes reflect broader sociohistorical transformations and political interpretations of gender and race. Our seminar will subsequently study the impact of beauty standards on a microsocial level, including to what degree individuals come to internalize or resist notions of biolegitimacy and beauty. Within this conversation, we will study various forms of body modification and plastic surgery, as both an ontological tool for self-construction and as a means for pathologizing deviance from beauty standards. For conference, students may choose to trace the historical roots and evolution of a specific beauty standard. Alternatively, conference work might focus on how individuals collectively resist a given beauty standard, potentially within the context of subcultures that substitute alternative notions of biolegitimacy.


The Sociology of Medicine and Disability

Open, Lecture—Year

SOCI 2032

Why do certain social groups have higher rates of morbidity and mortality than others? How are these differences driven by our social environments, as well as by social practices within health and medicine? These are some of the many questions addressed by sociologists of medicine. Unlike the physical sciences, which primarily study the physiological causes and effects of illness, sociology addresses health as a practice that is: 1) shaped by social processes; and 2) constructs differences between social groups. This yearlong lecture will overview major themes within the sociology of health and medicine, including (among others) the fundamental causes of disease, medicalization, contested illnesses and experiences of illness, and health social movements. Our lecture will ground these concepts through the lens of disability studies to better understand how health and medicine create social differences and shape lived, embodied experiences. During these conversations, we will also attend to the intersection of disability with other social categories, such as sex/gender, race, and class. For conference, students will choose a theoretical concept to guide their investigation into a specific empirical context. For example, students may choose to use Talcott Parsons’ concept of the “sick role” to better understand the varying perceptions of what it means to contract COVID-19 as a vaccinated or unvaccinated person.


Previous Courses


Social Movements and Powerful Art: Aesthetics of Authority and Resistance

Open, Seminar—Spring

Using US-based artist Sarah Sze’s remark, “Great protests are great art works,” as its inspiration, this seminar explores the relationship between art, collective ideas, and social change within the context of social movements. We begin by discussing the relationship between aesthetics and the social sciences, focusing on a sociological notion of art as a collective and inherently social process. Our study includes the work of social theorists Antonio Gramsci, Pierre Bourdieu, and Theodor Adorno, whose works not only illuminate how public culture communicates collective ideas but also how the latter is imbricated with existing power structures and social hierarchies. These critical frameworks will help us investigate the modern art world, exploring how artistic institutions and movements are sites that both perpetuate and resist authoritative ideologies. In the second half of the semester, students will use these frameworks to explore the role of culture and art within collective social movements. We will investigate several questions, including: What defines a social movement and what social conditions produce social movements? How are art and aesthetics used within social movements to communicate ideas and strengthen communities? In what ways do movements deploy art as a form of social resistance or authority? Our discussions will particularly attend to grassroots movements within historically marginalized communities. Throughout the semester, students will also learn about the benefits of visual methodologies and how social scholars use them to understand collective culture and social change. For conference, students will select a specific social movement, exploring how art is deployed within the movement for collective resistance or control. Possible topics include (but are not limited to) critical analysis of an artistic institution, comparative analysis of how different contexts of resistance deploy shared artistic mediums, or the use of art within a given movement over time. While class discussions will primarily focus on the United States, students are also invited to explore the relationship between art and social movements in other social locations.


Sociology of the Body

Sophomore and Above, Seminar—Fall

How are bodies produced in the contemporary world? To what degree are our bodies truly our own? Using Michel Foucault’s term “biopower” and his related work as its point of departure, this course will address the above questions as well as others related to the body in order to analyze and better understand how modern social institutions and relations regulate and attempt to control our bodies. Our examination and analysis will include the various modalities through which power is enacted at the macro level—including, for example, state surveillance, violence, and policy formation. We will also explore the relation between such forces and micro-level, everyday experiences throughout, deploying the concept of “embodiment” to understand how social power not only acts upon us but also becomes internalized within our very beings. This framework will help us better understand how social power is carried through the body and shapes our physicality, as well as the ways in which we move through the social world and interact with each other. Our analysis will enable us to examine biopower more critically with respect to constructions and interpretations of sex/gender, race, class, and sexuality at multiple social scales. For conference, students are expected to select a social context of their preference through which to examine the relationship between biopolitical forces and the embodied experiences of the individual(s). Students might also explore strategies of resistance—both individual and collective—to establish bodily autonomy and resist domination. In addition to social scientific studies, students may deploy ethnographic research, media analysis, and/or turn to personal (auto)biographies as bases of their research and analysis.


Public Policy

Environmental Policy, Racism, and Social Justice

Open, Lecture—Year

In April 2014, the residents of Flint, Michigan, noticed something was wrong with their water. Residents of the predominantly Black city reported discolored, putrid water that produced skin rashes and even hair loss. While city officials insisted that residents had nothing to be concerned about, further testing revealed high levels of lead and bacteria, the effects of which we will see for generations to come. Flint, Michigan, reignited a national conversation about the relationship of our physical environment, race, and social (dis)ability in the United States. These themes will be central to this yearlong lecture, which investigates several questions: What is the relationship between the physical environment and our bodies? How does environmental policy affect and produce social disabilities? How do built environments shape experiences of disabilities? We will discuss these questions using both historical and contemporary lenses. Our analysis begins with an exploration of the United States’ history of imperialism, segregation, and redlining to investigate how these endeavors have shaped its natural and built environment. We will then examine how the ghosts of these histories shape contemporary environmental policies and to what degree this legacy has produced different forms of social disability. Throughout these discussions, we will attend to several themes, including: how racial hierarchies shape environmental injustice, how our built environments both produce and shape experiences of marginalization, and how those experiences are addressed by communities of color and environmental justice movements. Throughout the year, group conferences will help students build and strengthen methodological skills. In the fall, students are expected to submit a research proposal, including: a topic related to an environmental issue of interest, corresponding research questions, and a review of relevant literature. In the spring, students will use their proposals to build a research portfolio that empirically and theoretically explores their topic. Portfolios should include an analysis of descriptive statistics, qualitative data of the student’s choosing, and an essay connecting findings to the lecture’s theoretical discussions.