Academic journal article Sociological Viewpoints

Sociology Confronts the World: Past, Present and Future

Academic journal article Sociological Viewpoints

Sociology Confronts the World: Past, Present and Future

Article excerpt

Thank you, Verónica, for the kind invitation to join this learned group today to talk about several things close to my heart - sociology, teaching, textbooks, and the importance of global education. I am honored to have this opportunity to spend this time with all of you. Typically, textbook writers in sociology, unlike their counterparts in a number of other fields, are unknown for much else and attract little attention; I will leave this curious pattern for now, and perhaps return to it at the end, if someone is interested, during the time we'll have for some questions.

A Visit to India

I'd like to start off, as I usually do in my own classes, with a story. Some years back, I arrived in the city of Madras, which is now called Chennai, the major city of Tamil Nadu along the western coast of southern India. This was my first visit to India, and it was a moment of great excitement not only for me but for all the hundreds of students and faculty who were sailing westward together as part of the University of Pittsburgh's Semester at Sea program. We had already visited Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Malaysia, so it was easy for us to imagine ourselves as seasoned travelers. But we had yet to visit a country where we would encounter what I might delicately call "world-class poverty," and everyone was up early the morning our ship approached the city, looking from the upper decks through the haze, full of wonder about what this large and very different city held in store. While we were still a mile or so from our dock, the wind coming from the west carried quite a smell. The Cooum River, which flows east into the harbor, was at that time the means by which some part of the city disposed of its sewerage, a fact that was quite evident to us even at this distance.

Within an hour or so of securing the ship, the first groups of students and faculty were ready to disembark and to begin exploring this new place. I had arranged to take the students in my social stratification class across the city to a squatter settlement, where recently-arriving migrants from rural villages had constructed a small community. With about thirty people in tow, I walked down the gangway and out the gate into a crowd of people attracted by our ship's arrival. The experience was startling. For one thing, we were immediately surrounded by hundreds of people-vendors selling all sorts of small items, people shilling for local merchants and restaurants and, most disturbingly, children who were begging. A few were crippled or disfigured, which made our inability to respond to all of them almost unbearable.

There was a bus waiting for us only ten yards away, and I suspect a number of the students made their way through the crowd and stepped up through the open door having had enough of Madras for the moment. Once a head count confirmed that everyone was on board, we were off through the city, with wide eyes peering intensely through the windows.

It is probably fair to say that few of us had ever seen anything like the lively and very different street live of this Indian metropolis. As our bus moved slowly through waves of pedestrians, small motor vehicles, and even a few cattle, we gazed on people eating, sleeping, washing, dressing-activities we were accustomed to thinking of as taking place behind closed doors.

The students were amazed by the breadth of this outdoor life, and also by how poor the people seemed to be. No doubt, the anxiety was heightened by the fact that we were traveling to the western edge of the city to visit newly-arrived squatters-people who we told would be far poorer still.

It is worth noting the reason for our anxiety, which was that we in the United States tend to associate poverty with anger and violence. As we drove through Madras, I got to thinking about another field trip I had been on several years before that, this one to New York City. A group of us were doing a walking tour of Manhattan and, as it was getting dark, we were moving along 125th Street in Harlem when a police van drove by and the officer behind the wheel "goose-necked" out the window looking back as us, and then made a quick U-turn and came alongside. …

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