Teaching Sociological Perspectives | 1: Scenario Setting

For better or worse, the notion of sociological perspectives is deeply embedded in A-level and High School sociology and teaching them can be a bit of a nightmare as far as students new to the subject are concerned.

For one thing, different perspectives introduce ideas about which the majority of students will never have given much thought: they may, for example, have a tangential awareness of broad ideas like Feminism or Marxism but it’s unlikely they will have come across Functionalism, Conflict Theory or Interactionism before starting to study Sociology.

And this leads to the second problem.

The ideas you’re trying to get across are likely to be so far outside their critical comfort zone that they run the risk of seeming abstract and detached from any reality they have hitherto experienced.

One way to resolve this is to anchor each perspective in some semblance of a known reality: a reasonably familiar situation or scenario against which you can apply different perspectives to demonstrate how they can be understood in the context of social behaviour. This will also demonstrate quite clearly to students how each sociological perspective looks at the same situation but interprets it differently – which in itself is useful as a way of generally understanding sociological perspectives as “different ways of seeing“.

A further benefit of this approach is that it helps to establish the idea that the social world may not simply consist of a “single unquestioned reality”: the world in which we live may not have quite the taken-for-granted existence your students may have been lead to believe.

Before we can use a scenario as a way of helping students to apply perspectives they clearly need to have some basic understanding of what each involves. How you do this is, of course, up to you, but it can sometimes be useful to initially sensitise students to the idea of different perspectives in a couple of ways:

Young? or Old?

1. Optical Illusions

Showing your students a few optical illusions makes them sensitive to the idea of “different ways of seeing” the same thing. Just do a simple web search for them if you need examples. I’ve found the ones that work best involve looking at recognisable pictures rather than patterns.

2. Analogies

Once you’ve established the principle that it’s possible for different people to look at the same thing and see it differently you can move-on to Perspectives Proper and one way of separating each perspective in a simple and effective way is to consider each in the context of different analogies. This not only helps students to understand the specific content of different perspectives but has the added bonus of identifying 5 or 6 key ideas about each perspective that can be applied to the final, scenario-based, section.

Once you’ve covered the above (or ignored it and done whatever it is you do) you need to provide your students with a real-life scenario they need to interpret from different perspectives, using the information they’ve previously uncovered. This section can be one that follows directly from the Analogies section or you can introduce it after any work you use to firm-up your students understanding of whatever perspectives you want to teach.

The following short film provides an example of a scenario that involves different applications (in this instance Functionalist, Conflict and Interactionist perspectives):

You don’t, of course, have to use a film clip (although a short news clip or something similar can be a simple, ready-made, way of setting-up a scenario to interpret). A set of pictures and / or simple text description can also be used. All that really matters is that you choose a scenario that gives your students the opportunity to apply their new-found knowledge of perspectives to an understanding of real-world situations.

Finally, of course, if you want to add a bit of evaluation into the mix you could get your students to think about which perspective – or even combination of perspectives – they feel provides the most convincing analysis (and why!) of the scenario they’ve just interpreted.

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