A central concept employed when introducing students to the discipline of sociology is the sociological imagination. The premise that human experiences are socially and historically contextualized is often the point of departure instructors take when introducing the discipline. Understanding the connections between individual experiences and wider structural and historical forces, C. Wright Mills (1959) argues, provides individuals with a greater awareness of themselves and others. It then becomes of interest to examine if indeed, students find the sociological imagination, along with other concepts and theories introduced, applicable to understanding or resolving, both personal and social, events they come into contact with in everyday life. We use data collected from a survey questionnaire administered to 250 students enrolled in Introductory Sociology at a large Mid-western university. This study, although focused on the development of the sociological imagination, gives coverage to student perceptions of sociology. Specifically, student assessments of the utility of sociology, in terms of an academic discipline, as well as a career enhancer, are examined. Additionally, the results reflect that students link sociology with civic responsibility.
The selection of a major by students is influenced at times by pre-established ideas about an area of study, and their introduction to a discipline. Introductory courses as an initial orientation and source of information become important. Students develop perceptions that have a long lasting impact in various introductory courses. After completing a lower division course that introduces major concepts, theories, methodologies, and their application, students walk away with an impression. This study examines the imprint that remains with students after being introduced to sociology. Specifically, we analyze student perceptions of sociology as an academic discipline as well as a professional-enhancer, the impressions students develop of sociologists and the effectiveness of teaching the 'sociological imagination' as a liberal concept proposed by C. Wright Mills (1959). Introduction to Sociology is clearly the obvious course for researching the above areas, at least in terms of initial perceptions of students taking sociology at a foundational level.
Sociology as a discipline invites holistic teaching and learning approaches that inspire deep understanding (Eby and Rioux, 1999). Introductory Sociology, the first level sociology course at most universities, presents a special challenge to the sociology department as well as its instructors. It is often a general education course, which contributes to broad interdisciplinary liberal learning objectives. At the same time, it is typically the introductory course for Sociology majors. It draws students with a wide range of abilities, backgrounds and interests (ibid. 1999). In addition to responding to both the range of students and the diverse purposes and functions of the course, the instructor must balance the interests of various constituents. Practitioners call for students to learn applied sociology, while Academicians want content knowledge (McGee 1994).
Previous studies by Hanson (1980, 1987) on student perceptions of sociology as a major indicated that teaching quality and departmental reputation while important, are not pre-eminent in students' choice of a major. However, recent studies and discussion about teaching sociology reveal a movement toward a broader understanding of what constitutes sociological knowledge. Steele and Marshall (1996) suggest this broad understanding when they predict that the work force will demand a more practical sociology that prepares students for jobs. Applied sociology and sociological practice will become increasingly important (Eby and Rioux, 1999). As instructors of sociology, it has been our endeavor to help students connect sociology with various dimensions of their lives that also include the mundane. …