2014-2015 Sociology Courses
Embodiment and Biological Knowledge: Public Engagement in Medicine and Science
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. 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 provide 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.
Politics of Health
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.
Understanding Mass Media: Theories and Methods of Sociological Analysis
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 a thorough 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, and/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 this course will include interdisciplinary content, the class will be rigorous and is likely to appeal to students with a strong interest in studying and applying theories and methods of qualitative social science.
Changing Places: Social/Spatial Dimensions of Urbanization
The concept of space will provide the thematic underpinning and serve as the point of departure for this course. Space can be viewed in relation to the (human) body, social relations and social structures, and the physical environment. In this seminar, we will examine the material (social, political, and economic) and metaphorical (symbolic and representational) dimensions of spatial configurations in urban settings. In our analysis, we will address the historical and shifting connotations of urban space and urban life. Moving beyond the historical aspects of urbanization and its transformations, we will turn our attention to the (re)theorization of the very notion of spatial relations itself. Here, emphasis will be placed on representational practices and processes, whereby social “space” is created, gendered, revisioned. “Space” will no longer be seen simply as physical space but also in terms of the construction of meanings that affect our use of and relation to both physical and social settings. While economic factors will continue to be implicated and invoked in our analysis, we will move beyond the economic to extra-economic categories and constructs, such as notions of power, culture, and sexuality. The focus will also shift, as the semester proceeds, from macro-analyses to include an examination of everyday life. Through our exploration of these issues, we will attempt to gauge the practices and processes whereby social space is gendered, privatized, and sexualized and distinctions are established between “inside” and “outside” domains and between public and private realms. Particular attention will be paid to attempts by scholars and activists to open up space both theoretically and concretely. Although the theoretical/conceptual questions examined lend themselves to an analysis of any city, our focus in the course will be largely, although not exclusively, on New York City. Students should feel free, however, to extend the analysis to other places that are of interest to them. This applies particularly to conference work.
Marx and Marxisms: Lineages and Contemporary Relevance
Ideas of social movements and social change throughout the world in the 19th and 20th centuries were significantly informed by the ideas of one social thinker: Karl Marx. Even today, thinkers in the humanities and social sciences (including media and cultural studies), as well as social and political activists, continue to be engaged with Marx’s ghost. While many detractors would argue—following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War—that Marx’s thought is now irrelevant, others argue the opposite: that the current phase of globalization that we are presently in was, in fact, anticipated by Marx. In this seminar, through a close and in-depth study of Marx’s writings and those of others about him, we will examine the impact of Marx’s ideas on thinking about and practices of social change. The themes in Marx’s writings upon which we will focus include the following: his views on human nature, social structures and individual agency and subjectivity, alienation, religion and ideology, objectification and commodification, social class and power relations, and political economy, including globalization. Following our close scrutiny of Marx’s work in the fall, in the second semester we will study later thinkers whose work has been inspired by Marx and who carried his ideas further and/or addressed new questions in the light of developments since the historical period in which Marx was writing. Among the latter, we will include thinkers such as Gramsci, Barthes, and Williams who addressed questions of culture and hegemony; structuralists like Althusser who dealt with the state and ideology; socialist feminists interested in the relationship of class, gender, and sexuality; more recent thinkers interested in the relationship of space, class, and power, such as David Harvey and Dorren Massey; and current analysts of globalization. For conference, students may work on specific social thinkers in the Marxist tradition and/or examine political and social movements inspired by his analysis.