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 social norms – something you may have touched on during induction week. This video is a great resource that examines Japanese culture by explaining expected rules of behaviour in a range of social situations including visiting someone’s home and taking the train:

    After watching, students could use the video to highlight similarities and differences between Japanese and British culture for each of the social situations in the video. As an extension task, students could create a resource for tourists to the UK that explains our norms of behaviour…. Are there any regional differences they want to include?

  3. 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:

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

  5. This video from BBC News examines cultural appropriation and can be used as part of a wider discussion on the somewhat blurred line for many between ‘cultural appreciation’ and ‘cultural appropriation’:

    Discover More Whose problem is Cultural Appropriation

    This particular resource focusses on festivals which may be timely for students over the summer. Another timely piece was featured in ‘The Week’

    Discover More Cultural Appropriation

    and looks at Kim Kardashian’s initial plans to name her new fashion line ‘Kimono’ with critics arguing that it was disrespectful to Japanese culture and ignored the cultural significance of the item.

    As an activity from this work, students could be asked to create a montage of images which represent the question or ‘Cultural appreciation or cultural appropriation?’

  6. 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. 

  7. 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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