Introduction to Sociology


The cultural theorist Raymond Williams once described ‘culture’ as one of the most difficult words in the English language to define. For some, such as the Victorian literary critic and educator, Matthew Arnold, culture is about the best that ‘has been thought and said in the world’. In other words, culture is about great art, great literature, and great thought. However, for others, such as Raymond Williams culture is ‘ordinary’. Culture is not just about what talent artists do, but it is what we all do. It is how we live.
Hence, we can see culture is the way of life of a particular group of people. In order to understand human behaviour, we need to understand the social context and culture in which that behaviour takes place. Ralph Linton (1945) stated that ‘The culture of a society is the way of life of its members; the collection of ideas and habits which they learn, share and transmit from generation to generation’.

  1. A good starter activity in learning about culture is finding out a little more about the UK. The link below takes you to a TES resource that begins with a quiz based on National Statistics information. From this, students are provided with a resource on a ‘different’ culture – the Shirbits. Reading through the information on the Shirbits as a class will no doubt result in some disbelief from members of the class at the thought of individuals dragging razors across their face or worshipping the box on the wall above the pool of water. Rearranging the letters in Shirbit will show them that what we are actually looking at here is British culture. It is a very useful reminder that ‘the other’ is not necessarily, strange, devious or ‘wrong’, it’s all down to cultural interpretation. 

    Discover More Introduction to Sociology

  2. Students are then encouraged to think about norms of behaviour – a norm being an informal rule of a society or culture. Students can be asked to brainstorm different British norms (for example, queuing) and to think about the sanctions imposed when people break a norm (for example, tutting). The following article outlines some taboos and norms around the use of chopsticks in Japan. These are a good discussion point and from this students can be asked to suggest the norms around food and eating in Britain. Do the norms vary depending on the location of the food being eaten or on the age of the person consuming the food?

  3. Discover More Tsunagu Japan - Japan Travel Information Platform

  4. The HSBC adverts (promoting themselves as ‘the world’s local bank’) also provide an insightful view of the social relativity of norms:

    Students can make a note of the social norm and the reaction of others around that norm. As a follow on task, students could be asked to consider how social norms can change over time. What things are now considered against the norm that at one time would be acceptable (or vice versa). Examples around child-rearing can be a useful starting point, e.g. mothers putting the baby and pram outside in their garden for their afternoon nap (1950s). This can be compared with childcare practices in countries such as Sweden and Finland today:

  5. Discover More The babies who nap in sub-zero temperatures

  6. The story of Genie and how she came to be discovered is possibly one of the most well known in the Social Sciences. A link to the story of Genie can be found here:

  7. Discover More Case Study the Story of Genie

    Genie was an abused child, locked away by her father who believed her to be ‘mentally retarded’. 

    Before watching the documentary, students could be asked to work in pairs to generate ideas of what they would expect a typical adolescent (around the age of 11-13) to be like and what skills they would have. After building up a ‘character profile’ you can then show the Genie documentary, asking students to focus on the skills and attributes that Genie displays. Students can then draw up a table to show ‘typical adolescent behaviours and skills’ compared with what they have seen from Genie in the documentary. 

  8. From this, introduce the nature versus nurture debate – what is it that makes us human. The following articles are a useful source of wider reading beyond the lesson: 

    Discover More Nature vs nurture: outcome depends on where you live

    Discover More It's nature, not nurture: personality lies in genes, twins study shows

    These two articles are useful as they illustrate both sides of the debate (and are written by the same Science correspondent). Using this information and their own research, students could be asked to write a response to the question ‘What makes us human’? Clearly this is potentially an extremely wide-ranging question but it is one which will afford teachers the opportunity to see how much reading students have done and what level their essay writing skills are currently at. 

    Another source of data for researchers interested in the nature versus nurture debate is twin studies. Here, twins who have been separated at birth but reunited later in life are examined to see what similarities and differences exist. Similarities may then be attributed to nature with differences being attributed to nurture. 

  9. Reading through the following Live Science article, students could be asked to identify what characteristics were found to have a genetic link in the study outlined. After making a note of each of these, working in pairs, students can they try to evaluate each suggested link. Are there any other possible explanations for the suggested relationship? 

    Discover More Twins Separated at Birth Reveal Staggering Influence of Genetics

    The Jim Twins are briefly mentioned in the above article and within this video clip, Robert Winston talks about their similarities and the statistical chances of those similarities occurring:

    The following video on twin studies is particularly useful for its findings on intelligence and can provide a good basis for class discussion into intelligence 


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