Sarah Wilcox

BA, Wesleyan University. MA, PhD, University of Pennsylvania. Areas of expertise include medical sociology, the sociology of science and knowledge, gender and sexuality, and the mass media; special interests in interactions among experts, laypersons, and social movements. Recent new courses in disability studies and the politics of health. Author of articles on lay knowledge and expertise and on media coverage of biological ideas about sexuality. SLC, 2005–

Undergraduate Courses 2019-2020

Sociology

Politics of Health

Open , Lecture—Spring

In contemporary American society, “health” is both highly politicized and seen as apolitical. Health is accepted as an unequivocal social good and unquestioned personal aspiration. No one can be “against health.” At the same time, the structure of our health care system and the possibilities for reform have been the focus of intense political debates. In this lecture, we will examine the following kinds of questions: What is health? What is public health? In political and cultural debates about health, how has the body become the focal point of new kinds of moralisms? Why are there patterns in health, so that some groups live longer and have less illness than others? Why does the United States spend more on health care than other countries yet rank relatively low on many measures of good health? How likely is it that you will have access to health care when you need it? Can we make affordable health care available to more people? We will examine both the social and cultural meanings of health and the political and policy debates about health and health care. For group conference, students will research a health issue, learn how to find and interpret public health indicators, assess community resources, consider policy options, and write and present a health policy brief on the issue that they’ve researched.

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Intensive Semester in Yonkers: Communities, Knowledge, and Action: Engaged Research Methods in Yonkers

Intermediate , Seminar—Fall

This course, part of the Intensive Semester in Yonkers program, is no longer open for interviews and registration. Interviews for the program take place during the previous spring semester.

Over the past half century, social movements have increasingly pushed for changes in the production of knowledge. Whereas most research studies are designed by academics and policy experts, advocates have argued that research agendas, methodology, and the dissemination of new knowledge should come “from below”—through the inclusion of community members, activists, and nonexperts in all steps of the research process. Examples of movements that have mobilized on behalf of the democratization of knowledge include environmentalists, the mental-health consumer/survivor movement, and AIDS activists. In this course, we will explore this history and learn methods of community-based participatory action research (CBPAR). Some of the principles of CBPAR are recognition of communities, equitable partnership among all who are involved in research, community involvement in determining research questions and methods, and dissemination of research results to all of the partners—and that research should lead to or support strategic action. Conference work will be based on 10-15 hours of fieldwork per week in a community-based organization and on developing a proposal for a CBPAR project for your organization. As part of that project, students will practice identifying community needs and resources and conducting interviews. In addition to learning sociological research methods and the principles of CBPAR, students will grapple with the complexities of community-based work: How are communities defined, and by whom? Who represents a community? What happens when there are conflicts or tensions between researchers and community members or when hierarchies of knowledge develop within communities or social movements? How can CBPAR attend simultaneously to immediate needs and actions and to long-term structural change?

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Related Disciplines

First-Year Studies: Seeing Sociologically

Open , FYS—Year

To see sociologically is to see how society and social processes shape our lives. To do so, we will explore the structure of ideas that contexualize our lives, how those ideas are institutionalized in culture and social organizations, and how that institutionalization forms a social structure that creates inequalities and both constrains and enables change. We will begin the semester with books that trace social structures from childhood to adulthood: the reproduction of social class in childhood, gender and sexuality in high school, and the medicalization of intersex conditions and subsequent construction of adult identities via social movements. We will then explore the central concept of social construction of social reality in more depth, studying how race is conceptualized by scientists, in textbooks, and by undergraduate students. In the final third of the class, we will study how social structures are instantiated through the examples of raced and gendered body work in nail salons, housing and environmental justice, and the politics of gay civil rights. In concert with reading these texts, classwork will also include a series of individual and group projects to learn sociological methods: ethnography, qualitative interviewing, media analysis, and use of quantitative data. The idea of intersections of race, gender, class, and sexuality is by now a familiar one, regularly referenced in college courses, public discussions, and political debates. The challenge facing sociology as a discipline is to see the social world in all of its complexity: the overarching culture, institutions, and public policies that form the structure of the world in which we live, the local social worlds within our broader society, and how we continually construct our social worlds through our interactions with each other. Thus, rather than moving from topic to topic—here race, here gender, here religion—in this course we will move through a series of texts that will help us understand the social world beyond our own experiences and how that world is made and remade.

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Graduate Courses

Health Advocacy 2018-2019

Health Care Policy

Online

This course will examine the formulation, implementation, and evaluation of health care policy. It will focus on the interaction of the health care system with the federal, state, and local political systems. Individual pieces of health care policy will be used to study the evolution of health policy and the impact of health policy on health care in the United States.

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Models of Advocacy: Theory and Practice I

In-Person Intensive and Online

This course explores the multiple roles that health advocates assume as they create productive change on behalf of patients/consumers, families, and communities. Advocacy is practiced by improving the way in which health care is delivered within existing systems; by restructuring or reinventing areas of the health care system; and by eliminating barriers to health caused by environmental destruction, poverty, and illiteracy. Throughout the year, students will be exposed to leaders who practice in diverse arenas within this interdisciplinary field. Students will learn to analyze organizations and communities in order to understand hierarchies and decision-making within them and to be exposed to frameworks for conceptualizing and promoting the right to health. The course will also explore strategies to give health advocates and consumers more power in making decisions, defining issues, designing programs, and developing policies. The experiences of individuals and communities, as well as how systems respond to those experiences, will remain a central focus as students explore concepts, models, and practices of health advocacy. This course begins with a one-week in-person intensive and continues online for four weeks.

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Previous Courses

Seeing Sociologically

Open , Seminar—Spring

To see sociologically is see how society and social processes shape our lives. To do so, we will explore the structure of ideas that contexualize our lives, how these ideas are institutionalized in culture and social organizations, and how this institutionalization forms a social structure that creates inequalities and both constrains and enables change. We will begin the semester with books that trace social structures from childhood to adulthood: the reproduction of social class in childhood, gender and sexuality in high school, and the medicalization of intersex conditions and subsequent construction of adult identities via social movements. We will then explore the central concept of social construction of social reality in more depth, studying how race is conceptualized by scientists, in textbooks, and by undergraduate students. In the final third of the class, we will study how social structures are instantiated through the examples of raced and gendered body work in nail salons, public policy and poor people’s experience of eviction from housing, and the politics of gay civil rights.The idea of intersections of race, gender, class, and sexuality is by now a familiar one, regularly referenced in college courses, public discussions, and political debates. The challenge facing sociology as a discipline is to see the social world in all of its complexity: the overarching culture, institutions, and public policies that form the structure of the world we live within, the local social worlds within our broader society, and how we continually construct our social worlds through our interactions with each other. Thus, rather than moving from topic to topic—here race, here gender, here religion—in this course we will move through a series of texts that help us understand the social world beyond our own experiences and how that world is made and remade.

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Health Policy/Health Activism

Sophomore and above , Seminar—Year

How does your race, class, gender, and where you live and work influence whether you get sick? Why does the United States spend more on healthcare than other countries, yet rank relatively low on many measures of good health? How likely is it that you will have access to healthcare when you need it? Can we make affordable healthcare available to more people? What do we mean by “public health”? What is the role of government in providing healthcare or managing the health of populations? In this course, we will investigate these questions directly and through studying health social movements. Health activists have not only advocated for particular diseases and for research funding but also have also sought to reduce stigma, uncover health disparities and environmental injustices, and democratize medical research. Throughout the year, we will examine the history and contemporary meanings of “health,” examining the moral values attached to health and illness and questions of medical authority and medical knowledge. We will begin in the fall semester by studying health social movements in conjunction with studying patterns of ill health; i.e., who gets sick and why? In the spring semester, we will turn to healthcare systems, both within the United States and globally. We will study programs of healthcare reform in the United States and other countries, international health policy, and specific health policy issues such as vaccination, genetic screening, or the ethics of medical research. Throughout the year, we will explore broad questions of social justice, inequalities, governance, activism, and the environment through the lens of health.

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Related Disciplines

Queer Bodies: A Cultural History of Medical and Scientific Knowledge

Open , Seminar—Fall

How have physicians and scientists studied and understood differences in sex, gender, and sexuality? What categories have they used, and how have these categories and the assumptions underlying them changed over time? How have popular conceptions of gender and sexuality influenced science, and vice versa? What has been at stake in viewing social differences as located in the body? How can we understand the medicalization and pathologization of queer bodies, genders, and sexualities in relation to broader cultural, moral, and political agendas? In this seminar, we will examine the history of scientific and medical study of sexual behavior, hormonal systems, the brain, and genetics. We will consider the varying relationships of gay, transgender, and intersex communities with science and medicine and tensions within those communities over whether scientific and medical knowledge is empowering or alienating. The books that we read will introduce students to the variety of methods and approaches used in the historical and sociological study of science and medicine, from close evaluation of the scientific evidence itself to analysis of the production of knowledge as a social activity and to broad analysis of science and medicine within politics, popular culture, and social movements. Conference work could hew closely to the topic of the seminar through the study of a particular debate, historical period, or area of scientific or medical research—or it could extend outward to a broader set of topics such as hormones and transgender health, the role of science in religious debates over sex and sexuality, or representations of queer bodies in art or popular culture.

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Related Disciplines

Embodiment and Biological Knowledge: Public Engagement in Medicine and Science

Intermediate , Seminar—Fall

In this course, we will explore when, why, and how biological ideas become salient to people’s identities and to political debates, whether and how closely popular conceptions of biology and the physical body match scientific and medical knowledge, and the variations in the extent to which biological knowledge is seen as relevant to particular conceptions of the self or social controversies over the body. For example, why have vaccinations become controversial, and what understandings of the immune system underlie these controversies? How does the subjective nature of pain figure into controversies over contested illnesses such as fibromyalgia or repetitive strain syndrome? What do “genes” or “genetics” mean in social or cultural terms? How do hormones figure into our cultural understanding of gender and into people’s own gendered self-identities, particularly at times of hormonal change such as puberty, hysterectomy, or taking hormones as part of aligning the physical body with gender identity? In sociology and anthropology, medical and scientific knowledge has often been described as alienating, distancing people from their direct embodied experiences. Yet, to be a body is also always to be in a social context; so that perception is simultaneously cultural and physical. While medical and scientific knowledge provides us with ideas about our bodies that we cannot directly experience (e.g., our genes), these ideas can be deeply embedded and socially powerful explanatory systems. Thus, scholars have also argued that rather than alienating us from ourselves and our bodies, medical knowledge is constitutive of bodies and selves. Biological ideas and terms also circulate freely, so that popular conceptions of biology or physiology and scientific knowledge may not map neatly onto each other. We will explore these themes of bodily association and dissociation, science as alienating or constitutive, and popularization and expertise through various domains of biological knowledge, embodiment, and public debate. Past course work in the social sciences is beneficial but not required.

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Related Disciplines

Disabilities and Society

Open , Seminar—Fall

In this seminar, we will broadly consider the topic of disability within contemporary society, examining questions of social justice, discrimination, rights, identities, and cultural representations. Disability studies is an interdisciplinary field of academic study that emerged out of disability rights movements and has, therefore, focused on how social structures are disabling, limiting, and exclusionary. In concert with this perspective, we will study the history of the disability rights movement, including the passage and ramifications of the Americans with Disabilities Act. We will also consider tensions within disability movements, including the difficulties inherent in mobilizing a collective identity that encompasses a wide range of conditions and circumstances. In addition to political mobilization, we will analyze cultural meanings and representations of physical, psychological, and cognitive disabilities. Cultural representations of disability shape our assumptions and expectations, while disability activists have used literature and art to contest stigma and create new kinds of representations of non-normative bodies and selves. Finally, we will consider questions of embodiment, self, and identity. Disability is typically defined in terms of physical or mental impairment, which implies that there is a “normal” state of non-impairment. Defining disability has been highly contested, both because of the stigma attached to those who are seen as different and because many people with conditions that have been labeled as disabilities do not see their conditions in negative terms. Most of us will experience some degree of impairment at some point in our lives; but only some of us will be seen as, or identify ourselves as, disabled. Some disabilities are a part of identity from an early age, and others develop later in life. Thus, we will consider the relationship between embodiment, ability, and selfhood, looking at how people negotiate identity in relation to social categories and their own embodied experiences.

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Related Disciplines

Medical Technologies

Intermediate , Seminar—Spring

Medical technologies—such as artificial heart valves, genetic screening tests, new drug treatments, and visual imaging devices—are continually being invented and incorporated into medical practice and everyday life. Technology has alternately been viewed as leading to miraculous improvements in human life or as unnatural and dehumanizing. In this course, we will explore these views of medical technology while also asking sociological questions. How are new technologies produced and incorporated into medical practice? How are medical technologies an outcome of interaction among multiple social actors, including physicians, patients, entrepreneurs, pharmaceutical companies, government regulatory agencies, and social movement activists? How have boundaries such as “natural” or “technological” been established and contested? How are the risks of new technologies regulated, and how is access to them determined?

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Related Disciplines

Politics of Health

Open , Lecture—Fall

In contemporary American society, “health” is both highly politicized and apolitical. Health is accepted as an unequivocal social good and unquestioned personal aspiration. No one can be “against health.” At the same time, the structure of our health-care system and the possibilities for reform have been the focus of intense political debates. In this lecture, we will examine the following kinds of questions: What is “health”? What is “public health”? In political and cultural debates about health, how has the body become the focal point of new kinds of moralisms? Why are there patterns in health, so that some groups live longer and have less illness than others? Why does the United States spend more on health care than other countries yet rank relatively low on many measures of good health? How likely is it that you will have access to health care when you need it? Can we make affordable health care available to more people? We will examine both the social and cultural meanings of health and the political and policy debates about health and health care.

Faculty
Related Disciplines

First-Year Studies: Understanding Mass Media: Theories and Methods of Sociological Analysis

Open , FYS—Year

The mass media profoundly shape everyday reality. We become aware of the world beyond our immediate experience through media representations and virtual social networks. Representations do not simply convey information but also structure our understanding of society, the meaning of social categories, and our sense of self. This course will provide an introduction to theories of media and society, including the media as a component within capitalist economies, as a public sphere in democratic societies, and as a form of culture. We will explore how the media make meaning and how social identities are reflected and constructed through media products. We will consider the role of audiences as recipients of media messages and as active participants in the use of media in everyday life. And we will examine new information technologies—including blogs, forums, wikis, and websites—to investigate whether they change the relationships between individuals and media institutions, between media professionals and the public, between experts and lay people, or between governments and citizens. Our readings on social theories about the media will be paired with empirical examples from studies of newspapers, television, movies, radio, magazines, advertising, and the Internet. Students will learn methods of media analysis—including narrative analysis, genre theory, content analysis, framing, and semiotics—and apply them in collaborative projects and conference work. Although the course will contain interdisciplinary content, it is most likely to appeal to students with an interest in studying and applying theories and methods from the social sciences.

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