Academic journal article The Great Plains Sociologist

Hearing Social Structure: A Musical Exercise in Teaching Introduction to Sociology

Academic journal article The Great Plains Sociologist

Hearing Social Structure: A Musical Exercise in Teaching Introduction to Sociology

Article excerpt

Abstract This article details employing music as a pedagogical tool to enable introductory students to relate personal experiences to larger social structures such as class, race, and gender through a creative yet rigorous exercise. The authors review earlier uses of music in the classroom, and expand on that framework, adding a number of crucial elements. The exercise includes the selection of a song by students, then a review of the sociological frameworks influencing the song, culminating in a formal research paper to enhance critical thinking and a presentation where students educate their classmates. The exercise enables the popularity of music to act as biographical proxy for students, allowing them to broach sociological topics that might be personally relevant through the medium of the song. The authors utilize two different assessment measures of student learning and their employment in relation to the objectives. The article further discusses the assignment's limitations and concludes by assessing the effectiveness of this exercise.


As many instructors who have taught an Introduction to Sociology course can attest, persuading students to abandon individual explanations for complex social phenomena so that they might better understand the complicated relations between social structures and lived experiences can be an arduous task. The individualistic interpretations offered by many introductory students veil structural constraints. It often does not occur to them that forces and social relations beyond their immediate control are influencing the content of their experiences and consciousness in ways that may not be readily apparent.

In order to overcome this common problem, we introduce a lively but rigorous classroom exercise entitled Hearing Social Structure. We present our findings on students' increased awareness of social structure from this term-long exercise used in two Introduction to Sociology courses. The assignment begins with students choosing a song that they feel speaks to them, then researching the social structures that might have impacted the views expressed in the song. Students are prompted to develop critical thinking skills through the writing of a formal research paper, and share their analysis with their peers in the form of a multimedia presentation. The intent of this exercise is to leverage the popularity of music by incorporating it in a learning environment, and employ that music to expand student's personal understanding to a larger social structural context, particularly the basic sociological concepts of race, class and gender. In detailing this exercise we argue that the sociological imagination can be stimulated through a cooperative pedagogy (here defined as the inclusion of students sharing in the teaching role and exemplified by the peer-oriented presentations). This exercise encourages students to deconstruct individualized explanations of their everyday experiences, allowing them to discover relationships between biographies and social structures. These relationships are also placed within historical context through the use of music from differing eras, focused research, and taking on the role of teacher to elucidate sociological concepts for their peers.

To evaluate the success of the exercise, we utilize two different measures of analysis. First, we employ a questionnaire to capture student responses at the end of the exercise. The questionnaire consists of two parts: a fixed-response section, designed to provide a 1 to 5 rating response on specific themes relevant to our goals, and an open-ended question section, enabling the authors to capture emergent themes and concepts that might otherwise be missed. Secondly, we evaluate students' test scores as another measure of the exercise's efficacy, and further judge the ability of this exercise to reach our stated purposes.


The merits of using music as a tool to teach sociology have been demonstrated by numerous researchers for decades. …

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