Introducing Sociology: Setting Sociological Ground Rules

One way to introduce Sociology to students who have never studied the subject is to focus on the concept of roles because this is a simple way to introduce a range of basic sociological concepts, from values, through norms to socialisation.

If you want to give these ideas a “real world” context and meaning an easy way to do this is use an exercise focused on the idea of establishing a set of “sociological ground rules” for the course (grounded in things like classroom behaviour, work outside class and so forth).

This not only allows you to introduce a range of basic concepts, from norms through values to socialisation and beyond, it’s also a sneaky way of getting your students to think about acceptable and unacceptable forms of classroom behaviour – whether this relates to attendance, behaviour in the class (such as the use of mobiles) or completing homework on time.

The basic idea for this activity is a simple one: as a class you are going to decide on what everyone agrees is:

  1. Acceptable behaviour
  2. Unacceptable (deviant) behaviour for a Sociology class.

To skew things in your favour, start by introducing and explaining the concept of using the example of education. This allows you to set-up two roles (teacher and student) from which you can then build the exercise (including ideas like role-set if it’s applicable to your course).

Next, ask the students to think about how “society” expects students and teachers to play their respective roles, considered in terms of basic ideas about “acceptable” and “unacceptable” behaviour; this should get your students thinking about how students and teachers are supposed to behave (as opposed, perhaps, to how they’d like to behave).

How you organise this is up to you, but the following basic table might help:

Positive Sanctions [Rewards]AcceptableUnacceptableNegative Sanctions [Punishments]

Process As a class or in small groups get the students to suggest acceptable and unacceptable forms of behaviour for those playing the role of teacher and student (if it’s easier, use two tables, one for the student role and one for the teacher role). Initially you should focus on the acceptable / unacceptable columns – if you want to talk about social sanctions then the rewards / punishments columns can be added later.

Once all suggestions have been exhausted (and it’s useful to come prepared with a few initial suggestions to get the ball rolling) you should have a list of behaviours students associate with teacher / student roles and you can use each behaviour, in turn, to illustrate a number of basic concepts, such as:

  • roles
  • values
  • norms
  • social status
  • social sanctions
  • social control (conformity and deviance)
  • An additional bonus is that you will also have a basic set of ground rules for appropriate and inappropriate student behaviour that have been decided by the students themselves; if you turn these into a wall poster it’s something you can reference whenever a student “breaks the rules” they have created for an orderly sociological society. If students have decided “appropriate punishments” for rule-breaking these can, in turn, be applied to those who break the rules…


    This exercise can also form the basis for the introduction, at various points in the course, of more advanced sociological ideas. These include:

  • social structures: what if, for example, students decide on a rule, such as allowing eating and drinking in class, that clashes with wider school / college rules that expressly ban such behaviour?
  • social actions: such as the choices we’re able to make within wider social structures
  • social order: how is it created and maintained?
  • power: what happens, for example, when teachers break the rules that have been established?
  • sociological perspectives based around concepts of social order (functionalism, for example).
  • If you’re looking to add a bit of value to your introductory classes we have a range of short films designed to do just that:

    1. What is Sociology?
    2. Sociology and Commonsense.
    3. Social Constructionism.
    4. Identity.

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