By Aijun Cai*
Use Your “Sociological Imagination”
“Diverse”, “Engaging” and “Enlightening.” These are the words used by three undergraduate students who took SOCIOL 111 Contemporary Social Problems with Hyun Jeong Ha, Ph.D. when asked to describe the course.
As an introductory sociology class, SOCIOL 111 covers a variety of topics related to social inequality, including education, gender and sexualities, race and ethnicity, and environmental pollution, among others. Since all topics are closely relevant to students’ daily lives, the course attracts their attention and incites their intrinsic curiosity. With the intriguing course content, Prof. Ha motivates students to consider individuals’ particular socio-cultural backgrounds before they express any views in discussion. This helps students view social inequality issues with a more analytical lens. Students also watch the film, Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 (2019), a recent South Korean film that addresses contemporary women’s questions under a patriarchal and misogynistic society. After watching it, students are encouraged to relate the film to their own or indirect experiences regarding gendered discrimination and violence against women in contemporary societies. It empowers them to view the widely-discussed topic of feminism in a more profound way with multiple perspectives. The three students we interviewed agreed that Prof. Ha’s encouragement, patience and guidance to think critically created a comfortable and safe classroom.
Furthermore, the above-mentioned concept of the class, intersectionality, that Prof. Ha highlights throughout the session would be one of the most enlightening takeaways, according to students’ feedback. This is also an indispensable research tool both for theory and methods for sociologists and other social scientists. With this key framework, students explore various social inequality issues, including reasons underneath and thereby, developing their own sociological imagination.
New Identity, New Challenge
“To help students think like a sociologist and to promote a productive learning environment,” Prof. Ha adds, “besides discussing theories, this course also provides fun learning activities. That is the Role-play Debate.”
Combining a role-play and debate forms an innovative classroom activity. As the name of the activity suggests, students create a new identity and role different from their own to defend their own group by using intersectionality. They are encouraged to prepare sufficient arguments through valid and reliable resources in advance. Students are divided into two randomly assigned groups by the instructor and they cannot choose a preferred position. Prof. Ha explains this is to promote cognitive flexibility of students defending the thesis that they would not have thought about otherwise. This mechanism compels students to extend their horizon and to think more comprehensively, just as sociologists do.
Once the activity begins students share well-organized opinions and defend their own group by bringing in various voices from different socioeconomic backgrounds. During the debate, each group presents evidence with supporting ideas, while also seeking new perspectives to convince the other group with strong arguments. Throughout the debate activity, “it provides opportunities for listening, developing skills in making reasoned arguments, skills in advocacy and dispute resolution as well as developing abilities to work constructively with others” (Hafford-Letchfield, 2010, p. 249). To win the debate is never the goal of this activity. Instead, it allows sufficient room for students to think critically and differently, given their unique identities. Just like one student (Shuzhe Wang) commented, “I suppose it’s more like a ‘discussion’ than a ‘debate’ as it inspired me in coming up with new ideas from perspectives that I hadn’t thought before.”
In the 2021 fall session, two topics were voted on by and heatedly discussed by students. One was about Gaokao (Chinese National College Entrance Examination) and the other was online learning. As students were interested in them the most, they spared no efforts to collect data through as many resources as possible. In the debate, they took turns conveying their ideas in a limited time and then opened debate with the other side. Prof. Ha facilitated the whole process closely by encouraging each group to come up with ideas to develop discussion topics.
After the debate, students were required to write a 400-word reflection memo. “It really helps me to ponder over what I’ve learned previously,” one student (Hanxi Bao) commented. “The difficulty level of reading materials was not high, but there were a little bit more writing assignments compared with other courses. That truly urged me to reflect upon the prior knowledge and integrate it with new one, which was totally worthwhile.”
After this short yet intensive seven-week course, some students shared that this course confirmed their resolution to choose sociology-related majors. Some students said that as the content was quite fundamental and useful, they applied the knowledge, like the construct of intersectionality, to other subjects and it worked really well. Besides the short-term impact, this course also manifested its long-term influence. For example, some students held that towards some news and social events, they consciously used their own judgment formed through this 7-week class and thus developed their own unique opinions, instead of listening to others blindly. Meanwhile, some took the initiative to discover and reflect on themselves more deeply and contemplate on their own social position within the society they belong to.
Beyond the instructor-initiated debate, after the session, one outstanding student (Jiayu Xue), organized an intriguing game, “Moot Society”, which attracted over 50 students. Inspired by the “Role-play Debate”, the leader of this activity created a more complete and holistic society, connecting each participant together. In this case, students not only had diverse brand-new identities, which motivated each to think and act in one particular character’s shoes, but more importantly, they tended to reflect more on the similarities shared by the moot and the real societies and thus revealed the hidden unequal phenomenon. The immersive experience manifested a vivid picture of complex social problems and their potential causes, advancing the broadening of students’ social imagination. When asked the reason for organizing this event, she explained that “I really learned a lot from this class and I wish through this game, more and more people could spare their attention to certain social problems and contribute their efforts to help solve them.”
About Dr. Ha
As a political sociologist and ethnographer, Dr. Ha’s research interests lie at the intersection of sectarianism, violence and emotional structures of religious minorities in the Middle East. Her current research examines how regime transformation and subsequent changes in political and social climate have affected Christian-Muslim relations in the post-2011 Arab Uprisings in Egypt. By taking an intersectional approach that investigates social class, gender and geography as major contributing factors to changes in daily sectarian relations, she diversifies Christians’ sectarian experience based on her ethnographic research. Born and raised in South Korea, she started to conduct field research in Cairo from 2006. She has published in Journal of Peace Research, Ethnic and Racial Studies, Research in Social Movements, Conflict and Change, and Contexts, among others. At Duke Kunshan, she teaches courses on social problems, sociological theories, and religion and politics in the Middle East.
Hafford-Letchfield, T. (2010). A Glimpse of the Truth: Evaluating “Debate” and “Role Play” as Pedagogical Tools for Learning about Sexuality Issues on a Law and Ethics Module. Social Work Education, 29(3), 244–258. https://doi-org.ez.xjtlu.edu.cn/10.1080/02615470902984655
Mills, C. W. (1959). The Sociological Imagination. Oxford University Press.
*About the author: Aijun Cai, the intern at the Center for Teaching and Learning, is a postgraduate student at Xi’an Jiaotong-liverpool University under the major of TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages). She is interested in language teaching as well as pedagogies.
**Intersectionality: Developed by a legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, intersectionality is a theoretical and methodological approach to an understanding of how multiple identities, including particularly social class, gender, and race, shape personal experience regarding discrimination differently. This framework allows us to realize complex aspects of social inequality.