Saturday, September 15, 2007

you asked for it: why is sociology commonly an "easy" major?

A couple of commenters asked for my "take" on why sociology is reputed to be a relatively easy major at many colleges and universities. Okay, why not? I'm just to going to write it as a series of observations and conjectures, though:

1. The intrinsic substantive difficulty of a field, whatever that means, is not a good place to look for the explanation of why some majors are easier than others, as instructors have the capacity to vary greatly the difficulty of courses on the same topic. There was a minor scandal many years ago at the University of Iowa over all the athletes who were talking "Watercolor" because it was an easy course to get a good grade in. The craft of watercolor itself is (I hear) very difficult and a course on it presumably could be made extremely hard.

2. That said, so many people are so resolutely incorrigible and freaked out about math, it's probably safe to assert a tendency in which the more a substantive enterprise involves math, the more difficult a major in that enterprise will be perceived as being. Most sociology dissertations are not quantitative, so it's not surprising there tends to be minimal math in sociology classes.

3. With varying directness at different universities, majors are a source of revenue for departments, so one might expect the "equilibrium difficulty" of a major to be whatever maximizes the number of students. All else being equal, it might be simpler to explain why an easy major would attract more students than a hard one, so perhaps difficult majors are bigger explanatory puzzles than easy ones.

4. One reason a student might choose a hard major over an easy one is that the hard major is perceived as offering greater career rewards. Any major that has to put up bulletin boards for undergraduates about "What can you do with an X major?" is more likely to be an easy major.

5. I'll conjecture that departments less dependent on students for revenue because of grants and other revenue streams tend to offer harder majors. Sociology has only modest funding from grants. BTW, if true, an implication might be variation in difficulty of majors is higher at research universities with considerable grant revenue (spread wildly disproportionately around departments), than at liberal arts colleges.

6. "Sociology" is sufficiently mysterious to high school students that very few enter college with the idea of majoring in sociology. Sociology commonly picks up many majors who only decide to major in sociology relatively late, and after taking some course after intro. For this reason, sociology has a greater cost to trying to impose any kind of prerequisites on students. Multicourse sequences are more difficult than courses with no prerequisites, especially as the latter often have to offer redundant conceptual content with one another.

7. Professors differ in the psychic rewards they derive from being seen as tough, presiding over a tough course, telling classes on the first day that a third of them will either drop or fail, etc.. Sociologists tend to be less stoked to give large numbers of students bad grades than practitioners of some other disciplines I could name.

8. Sociologists are, professionally, better at generating non-individualistic explanations for individual failures. So they tend to be constitutionally more squeamish about making distinctions among students, which inflates grades and makes the major easier.

Consistent with a broader aversion to hierarchy, sociology draws disproportionately from the pool of those who would be fine abolishing grades altogether. I'll conjecture the prevalence of this attitude in a discipline is correlated with how easy it tends to be. Any discipline in which a leading textbook is titled "Down-To-Earth X," or something equally hippie-friendly, is more likely to be an easy major.

10. Even after all the foregoing, I would want more evidence before I conceded that sociology is typically an easier major than most majors in the humanities or fine arts. Sociology is identified as a "social science," though, so when people call it an easy major, the humanities are not the comparison group in mind.


Anonymous said...

I believe that at UW students who want to major in Soc have to meet the minimalist of standards. Other majors, such as nursing and psychology, have high standards. I personally know students who were turned down from the college of nursing even though they had a 3.8 GPA. Thus, Soc at UW might attract less than stellar students in this regard, which then might lead to the perception of the major being "easy."

Also, I was a psych in undergrad, which was considered by many a "default" major (i.e., I can't or don't want to major in anything else, so this will have to do). I think the Psych dept at UW prevents this by having set curves in their three primary courses (intro, stats, methods).

Lucy said...

I was surprised in my first biology lecture that the lecturer gave us the "look to your left, look to your right, one of you won't be here next semester" speech. Biology was supposed to be the friendly science! Although, probably the engineers were only told to look in one direction (or some more statistically accurate version).

Anonymous said...

Though viewed as a social science by some, sociology is also viewed as a humanity by many practitioners. When taught as a humanity, where students interpret the world rather than explain it (tell a story rather than test a hypothesis, view through a lens rather than test a lens), then you're in the world where any - or at least many - interpretation can be right, in the same way that contemporary literary critics would insist there's no right way to interpret a novel. Once you've entered this bizarro world, it's hard to know how to evaluate work, and more likely that everyone gets an "A." The sociology-as- interpretation, rather than explanation, approach is present from the get-go in many textbooks (e.g. the Macionis intro textbook asks you to interpret phenomena through the theoretical lens of conflict theory, functionalism, or symbolic interactionism with little emphasis on assessing which perspective worked best...further, one could argue that none of these three are real, testable social scientific theories).

But for my part, I'm an easy teacher because I'm a pushover....and that's a by-product of the same values that got me interested in sociology. I try to fight it, but it's tough.

Anonymous said...

I really think it's all about the subjectivity. The more a discipline gives off the appearance of allowing for subjectivity, the less valuable it appears in the college student's eye (and I'd argue, in the eye of wider society). It's been my perception that many of my non-Sociology major friends in undergrad equated "subjectivity" with "ease of bullshitting" (as in an increase in possible answers/ways to answer a question in a given discipline is directly related to an increase in a person's ability to bullshit their way through a course without doing the reading.)

An even sadder fact is that these friends never could understand that our Sociology professors could still tell who hadn't done the reading. Then they would get self-righteous and angry about their B minuses.

Anonymous said...

I think it's that the liberal less-disciplined students often flock to that major.

If everyone is a victim, you havt to compensate in the grading. A hard sell story is worth a lot in making excuses for why you can't run with the pack and need special help.

That's why so many of those who succeed in the major are the hard sell cases -- the ones proud to call themselves "white trash" because they came up poor, or those who were immigrants or minorities, displaced rurals (hi Jeremy!), etc.

How many well educated, well bred high school students would choose to wallow in that field where it's commonplace to find victims and make excuses? That's why you see so many far left liberals in there -- they can't cut it on real jobs, and need the special understanding sociology provides in explaining why they are where they are because the system has given them no choice.

jeremy said...

1. I agree that if I had come from a more advantaged class background, I would likely not have been a sociology Ph.D., but not for the reason you suggest. That's for a different day, anyway.

2. I am amused by the idea of their being an outpouring of affirmative-actionly support in sociology for boys from rural white backgrounds.

3. My experience--and actually this would be an interesting thing to study--is that the people from what you call "hard sell" backgrounds in sociology are less enthusiastic about sociological victimology than people from privileged backgrounds.

Anonymous said...

the real question at hand here is "why am I endlessly reading blogs instead of finishing my comp due at 9 tomorrow morning?"

Anonymous said...

Anon at 8:01, you make a good point, but I think you take it too far. What social science discipline actually fully "explains" most (or even a significant percentage) or the phenomena it seeks to explain, given the differentiation between explanation and "interpretation" you're suggesting? While I'm sure Economics is the logical answer, it's not as if there hasn't been (and continues to be) a substantial amount of overturning/revision of foundational theories. Moreover, I'd argue that most sociologists seek to explain things that aren't as easily measured and quantified as things economists study. Turning to other fields, by your criteria, should we rule out the possibility that historians ever explain anything?

That being said, I think you're attempting to get at the notion that too many sociologists accept the postmodern conceit that all explanations are equally valid -- a position I also reject. However, sometimes it's necessary and even desirable to adjudicate between interpretations based on their correspondence to the best evidence we have, rather than based on their ability to be converted into "testable" hypotheses.

Jeremy, I think there are exceptions to four. Returning to history, I don't think many undergraduate history majors would claim that it's an easy major. In fact, students in more marketable majors (from biology to business to marketing itself) readily complain about the difficulty and workload of the broad undergraduate survey courses in history departments most students are required to take -- and they're some of the easiest courses offered.

Brady said...

I dunno, I'm one of those well-educated, well-bred kids "wallowing," as Anon so charmingly put it, in sociology. I went for the sociology major after initially planning to major in Philosophy or English because I found the discipline intrinsically interesting and endlessly fascinating; Berger and Luckmann in intro soc blew my mind, man. Values, or a concern with social justice, had little or nothing to do with it. It was more that it was a way to empirically test the propositions of social theorists.

(This is not to say that I don't share many of the same values or concerns that sociology is kind of known for, but that they weren't what floated my boat.)

As for the whole "victims" and "making excuses" thing, well...maybe it's time to read something other than Atlas Shrugged. Is it really so asinine to suggest that we do not act wholly independently of the social contexts in which we find ourselves, or that not everyone gets the same set of choices from which to choose?

Honestly, most of the complaints I see about sociology have less to do with what the majority of working sociologists do, as far as I can tell, than with a certain political/cultural lens through which anything that deviates from the image of the self-sufficient autonomous free agent is coded as "pansy bleeding heart nonsense" and a fetish for "common sense" that would make a true Philistine blush.

sara said...

I was a sociology major at Reed College - admittedly, an atypical place in all sorts of wonderful ways - in the early 1990s. At that time, the major was relatively easy, by which I mean it had fewer required courses than many other majors (and given my interdisciplinary inclinations, this certainly was one of its attractions). However the sociology classes and the professors who taught them were somewhat famously challenging. When I first went to graduate school - in public health, at a highly ranked school - I was devastated (and outraged) by how comparatively easy the classes were.

So, just to say, it seems worth thinking of each of these components - major requirements, course content, professors - as distinct in re: the notion that sociology is an easy major.

Anonymous said...

...and get rid of the deadwood. Now who do you think will do this?

Aftersox said...

I got my undergrad in English and mathematics.

When I met with the graduate director for the sociology program at my school he explained that a lot of people go into Sociology for the wrong reasons. Like because it's 'liberal' or because it's easy.

I chose sociology for my graduate degree for many reasons, but one of the big reasons was I feel like I can make a contribution.

It just feels like so many in sociology, while espousing science, don't necessarily practice it. It seems like there are so many unanswered questions that could be approached, but hardly anyone in sociology is doing it.

I feel like I have some sort of zeal and skill to approach these un-fiddled-with questions.

Tom Volscho said...

I agree with Anon 12:15: "...that too many sociologists accept the postmodern conceit that all explanations are equally valid -- a position I also reject."

There "ease of bs" thing is facilitated by taking Soc. Construction of Reality to an absurd extreme and the Post-
Modern idea that no idea is better at explaining empirical evidence than any other idea.

I once asked an extreme postmodernist if it was possible that when they jumped out of the sociology building, would the splatting of their head on the pavement be due merely to the social construction of gravity?

Anonymous said...

First, many thanks to Jeremy for this post; I found it very interesting. Second, I think Brady's comments are very well taken. To push one of them a step further, the critics of Sociology from the "atlas shrugged" arm of the right wing fail to see that their very persepective on sociology is driven by an IDEOLOGY with questionable connections to empirical reality. In short, they are so blinded by the lens they've adopted that they don't understand the existence of the lens, nor the interests it serves. A little MORE sociology in their college course loads (if they had them) might have been helpful. As with Brady's comments, these are, in part, directed at Anon 8:42.

Anonymous said...

As someone who teaches sociology, I can say that my classes are easier because I simply do not have time to grade papers & such. When you have to give short shrift to the work, you tend to inflate the grade because you haven't thought out a decent justification for a worse grade. I suppose multiple choice tests are the "answer," but I personally don't like them as much as papers.

kristina b said...

my comment turned into a blog post.

Anonymous said...

Anon 3:14:
Sounds like the mandatory re-education requirements history shows us in other cultures. Just say no to victimhood.

Anonymous said...

anon 5:31: the post had nothing to do with 'victimhood' (which i tend to reject). my point about blindness seems to have been validated. and, for the record, i'd be the first to oppose 'mandatory re-education'. what bothers me is knee-jerk rejections of any perspective other than one of society comprised of atomized individuals (which is itself an illusion).

Anonymous said...

what bothers me is knee-jerk rejections of any perspective other than one of society comprised of atomized individuals

Oh, sociology as a scientific study has worth. And if the elders are wise and experienced enough to make valid societal conclusions, sure.

But a lot come of as junior scholars substituting their pet peeves into the field. Hence the victimhood whine. It stunts, rather than helps, these societal victims to compete -- gives excuses, rather than encouragement on their long hard journey.

Be neutral in the science, and recognize life is unfair and the world cruel. Enough editorializing in the classroom, you might see more competitive students and less denigration of sociology as a major. Hth.

Anonymous said...

I know many majors here at UW have very high standards. But if they all had such high standards, some of the students would inevitably be kicked out school when they failed to produce. I'm not arguing with that as a principle, but in a practical sense, the University is never going to give up the revenue generated by those dead weight students. Financially, some departments have to serve that need.

jeremy said...

Mary: Given that you have a law degree, you are well aware that you have the right to continue reading this blog, but I would prefer that you don't. You might also consider turning your comment on on your own blog.

jeremy said...

Others: I do not know Mary G. personally. She is a former Wisconsin law school student who leaves trolling comments on various blogs that she associates with Ann Althouse. The comments on this thread from her have been deleted, but included her writing: "Who'd thunk a poor rural kid, son of simpleton sheep farmers dead sister n all, could git so far? Gaaaawly-G! What a special boy you are."

Ang said...

Well, that's just bullbother. Good for you for getting rid of it.

Jay Livingston said...

I tell students that sociology is a difficult major -- difficult because it asks you to think about social facts rather than individual facts. It's easier and seemingly more natural to explain behavior as a matter of individual volition, decision, etc. Sociology is also frustrating because our we put our propositions in terms of probabilities rather than certainties.

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