My Top Ten Fictional Films with Sociology Content

Films are a great way to teach sociological theories and concepts – and there’s lots of films out there which do just that.

In no particular order…. (And links to analysis to follow)

  1. Fight Club – The most obvious reading is of this as a classic critique of the false consciousness and alienation the working classes suffer under consumer capitalism, but no doubt there are other interpretations out there.
  2. A Bug’s Life –  Useful for illustrating basic Marxist concepts.
  3. Black Mirror: The National Anthem – Charlie Brooker’s short film – The Prime Minister has to have sex with a pig live on T.V. to save the life of the nation’s princess whose been kidnapped. This is the best film, hands down, to convey the meaning of ‘hyperreality’.
  4. Catfish – About a guy that meets a girl on Facebook, and on taking a trip across the States to meets her realises she’s not as good looking as her photos suggested. Most people who’ve gone on a date can relate to this, just maybe not to this extreme. (P.S. I’m calling it fiction, I simply don’t believe it wasn’t set up, just don’t tell the kids before you show it them.)
  5. Lord of War – A nice introduction to the module on Global Development – Set over a ten year period from the mid ‘80s to the mid ‘90s Nicholas Cage plays an arms dealer who comes into own selling ex-Soviet military hard-ware to African Dictators and rebels. Quite a nice introduction to the history of international conflict post Cold-War
  6. Hotel Rwanda – A bit slow, and a not so nice introduction to Global Development – set around the Rwandan Genocide – Especially useful if you are going to teach conflict as an aspect of development given the ongoing concerns in neighbouring DRC in 2012-13
  7. The Freedom Writers – Based on a true story a teacher encourages her marginalised, mostly ethnic minority students to get into literature by telling their stories in diaries. It may be based in ‘90’s America, but you find another film that’s about education and research methods and I’ll eat my diary.
  8. Visitor Q – O.K. It’s an 18, so I’m not recommending you show this to your teenage students in class – but let’s just say if you thought gay marriage was contentious or divorce-extended families somewhat unusual, by the standards of the family in this little gem, the rest of us are all pretty much singing from the same song sheet.
  9. Threads – Really not that much to do with anything I teach, but this is simply the most harrowing movie I’ve ever seen. The fact that it’s set in the in Sheffield in the 1980s is scary enough for starters, and it gets worse as it imagines what a real life nuclear holocaust would actually be like. Unlike most other films there is no happy ending, so if you have a burning hatred for a particular class or have just had a stressful year and want to end the term by putting the students on a downer – this is the video to choose.
  10. Kung fu Panda – Simply the best film ever made period. Richly layered with many levels of meaning, and deeply, deeply moving.

The Apprentice Final Five and Class Inequality

The Apprentice – The Final Five demonstrates some of the subtle ways in which the class structure disadvantages those from working class backgrounds –


To focus on just one example, Frances was a straight A student who dropped out of the University of Durham because ‘it sounds ridiculous’ but she didn’t feel liked she fitted in.

Frances Bishop – eventually fired after the interview round

Here’s some class-based theorising about why she may’ve dropped out… of course it’s just theory, with any luck she’ll comment and say whether there’s any truth in it or not, can’t beat a bit of qualitative feedback after all…

From a broadly Marxist perspective, the 18 year old Frances’ naive lack of awareness of the class structure may have played a role in her dropping out – had she realised in advance that elite universities are are chock full of hot-housed middle class students then she might have been better prepared to endure three years of alienation and anomie.

Better days?

I imagine her first sense of dislocation came from her material disadvantage – it’s likely that many of her peers would be familiar with going for regular meals-out/ regular wardrobe changes/ maybe even ski-holidays, which someone from a poorer background (her step-dad was a truck driver) wouldn’t be familiar with – I’m sure Francis’ weekly budget was considerably lower than the average, and with no middle-class-daddy safety net to back her up, her days keeping up with the fillees were always going to be numbered.

Then you have to add to this her lack of cultural capital – Frances’ lack of knowledge of middle class values and tastes would further alienate her – I’m sure concepts such as weekend breaks , ponies, and ski holidays would be misnomers, for example, hardly grist for her conversational mill.

(UPDATE 30/12/16 – Frances did comment, and my speculation seems to have been ‘close to the mark’! What can I say – looks like social class barriers are a social fact!)


If only Frances had read some Bourdieu in advance of going to uni, she might not have expected to fit in at all,  and maybe this would’ve helped her to endure and get her degree – then again, maybe that would’ve left her worse off, she seems to have done alright for herself in the end, even if she doesn’t win Sugar’s cash.

Frances isn’t the only media celebrity to fall fowl of the evils of cultural capital – Mary Berry tried doing the same to Gregg Wallace as the Durham fillies did to Frances, but Gregg seemed to be more able to resist the affront.

I feel like I’m gradually collecting celebrity victims of cultural capital, maybe one day we’ll all find each other on the front line of the coming class war… it’d make for a good selfie.

Related Posts 

Lies, Damn Lies and The Apprentice – How we’re supposed to think The Apprentice works compared to how it actually works

The Myth of Meritocracy and The Structure of Luck – The later half of the post focuses on the role luck played in Alana’s (the eventual winner of The Apprentice 2016) eventual victory – the blonde one to the left in the above picture.


Crude – The Real Cost of Oil

This documentary is the story of a lawsuit by tens of thousands of Ecuadorans against Chevron over contamination of the Ecuadorean Amazon.The case, worth $27 billion is one of the largest and most controversial legal cases on the planet.

The Plaintiffs are suing Chevron for damage cause by 30 years of operation in the Amazon between 1960-1990. The plaintiffs claim that Texaco – which merged with Chevron in 2001 – spent three decades systematically contaminating one of the most biodiverse regions on Earth, poisoning the water, air and land. The plaintiffs allege that the pollution has created a “death zone” in an area the size of the Rhode Island, resulting in increased rates of cancer, leukemia, birth defects, and a multiplicity of other health ailments. They further allege that the oil operations in the region contributed to the destruction of indigenous peoples and irrevocably impacted their traditional way of life.

Chevron fights the claims, charging that the case is a complete fabrication, perpetrated by “environmental con men” who are seeking to line their pockets with the company’s billions.

In some respects the film is depressing, in others enlightening – it’s only being fought in Ecuador because Chevron demanded so, after spending 9 years dillydallying in American courtrooms, to get the case moved from the USA to Ecuador.

The film mostly follows the legal team representing the Indians – and it’s a bleak picture – we learn, for example, that the brother of one of them was tortured and  murdered, and we also get see what a drawn out process this legal battle is – most of the time this team looks on the edge of exhaustion – but not as exhausted as some of the people living near Chevron’s oil spills who are suffering from Cancer.

You also get to see and hear from Chevron’s lawyers – who play a cunning game of ‘it’s  not our fault, you have to blame the government that allowed us to drill here’ or ‘OK –  we see that there’s oil here – but how can you prove it’s a result of our drilling processes rather than just natural seepage’? and similarly ‘how can you prove the skin rashes are due to oil and not just poor sanitation’?

The Movie doesn’t conclude, as at the time of production the legal battle was ongoing – but in Feburary 2011 Chevron were found guilty of environmental damage and slapped with a $9 billion dollar fine – only 1/3rd of what the Plaintiffs were asking for.

Chevron of course, rather than pay the fine are fighting back – arguing that the lawyers in the Movie have been engaged in Fraud in that they’v emade false allegations against Chevron, and they hold the state owned oil company of Equador, which took over prodcution since 1990, responsible for the pollution.

This is just about the perfect resource for teaching ‘environmental crime’ in the A2 Criminology course!

Lies, Damn Lies, and The Apprentice?

Or is Alan Sugar some kind of Calvinist God?


‘One in four entrepreneurs who start businesses fail within the first 24 months…. Already in this process I have invested £1.25 million pounds in 5 businesses, and they haven’t failed, and the reason they haven’t failed is because they’re being mentored by me’.

Alan Sugar, introductory speech to this year’s Apprentices (2016)

While the first two statements above may well be true, the idea that the crucial factor in the last five winners’ enterprises succeeding is Alan’s mentoring is possibly nonsense – a more likely reason Sugar’s start-ups have all succeeded is that of the 18 candidates or so who start the show every year, at least 10 of them have been cherry-picked because they’ve got very sensible business ideas.

The chances are that of all of the start-ups Sugar ends up with would almost certainly have succeeded if the candidates had just sought out venture-capital, given that he’s got an enormous pool of genuine talent to start with (at least 6 are guff-candidates, but there’s always enough sense in there too), and that then gets whittled down further.



Nadiya Hussain’s Gift to A Level Sociology

The Chronicles of Nadiya, fronted by last year’s Bake-Off winner Nadiya Hussain, is  a surprisingly solid piece of sociological TV. (Episode 1 is available on iPlayer until Friday 23rd Sept 2016, or on eStream until Armageddon if yer one of my students.)


Given Bake Off’s significant contribution to the reproduction of class inequality, I was sceptical about how useful a spin-off cooking documentary might be, but the programme is actually less about cooking and more about illustrating the complexities of British Bangladeshi culture and identity and combating the stereotype that hijab wearing Muslim women are oppressed.


In episode one Nadiya returns to her home village (95% of British Bangladeshis come from the same region in Bangladesh) and in the process discusses numerous aspects of her identity – about the complexities of being rooted in both Britain and Bangladesh, and how she never feels 100% at home in either place; about her choice to wear the hijab and what that means to her; and about why she doesn’t want to subject her own children to an arranged marriage and traditional Bangladeshi wedding ceremony basically – you get to see a distant cousin of hers getting married, and you can understand why!

The extract below is from ‘The Week’ which gives more background on Nadiya Hussain’s life… 

Nadiya Hussain’s life has changed hugely since winning bake-off. Since she won, she has met the queen, written a book and given numerous interviews and talks. In doing so, she has had to overcome her own shyness but also her family’ strict traditions.

She grew up in Luton where she went to an all girl’s school which was 85% Muslim, where she had no white friends.

Luton’s also somewhere on both of these maps

Later, she won a place at King’s College London, but her parents refused to let her go. Instead, they set about finding her a husband, and at 19, she married Abdal, an IT consultant, 3 weeks after meeting him. A year later, they had their first child and she became a housewife.

Yet Abdal proved not to be the stereotypical controlling Muslim husband: he could tell that his wife was unfulfilled, and he didn’t like it. One day, he brought her the application form for Bake Off, with 11 pages of it filled in, and supported her every step of the way through the process.

Although her own arranged marriage has worked out, Nadiya insists that her children will choose their partners. More generally, she hopes her achievements will give other Muslim girls the confidence to pursue their dreams that she lacked as a teenager. ‘I wasn’t strong then. I’m a different person now’.

She does cook a few (very tasty) looking dishes in the programme too, so overall this is a top-sociological documentary – fantastic for showing how one individual maintains some aspects of her cultural traditions while rejecting others.

Sociology on TV August – September 2016

There’s a couple of really useful documentaries relevant to the crime and deviance module which have been on recently, which you might want to grab for college estream if you teach Sociology – As I see it you can get a good three-five years out of a good documentary.

Life Inside Wandsworth Prison demonstrates how under-staffing and overcrowding have resulted in a lack of care for prisoners, with many being locked-down for 23 hours a day, with scant mental-health care provision where required (which many prisoners do). In addition to this the documentary also shows how drugs are readily available in the jail, with weed being openly smoked in front of the guards and it’s clear that many of the prisoners are victims of violence. Available on iPlayer intil Friday 16th Sept – So either watch it now, or you should be able to grab using estream connect for another 11 months.

Britain’s Most Wanted Motorbike Gangs? is available on iPlayer until February 2017 and is useful for evaluating the relevance of all kinds of theories of crime – subcultural theories and interactionism especially.

Finally, don’t forget Bake Off – You can use this to demonstrate how social control works through the Synopticon – through the many watching the few rather than the few watching the many. I’m not going to explain this here, more on that later, but THINK about it and you should be able to figure out what Bake Off’s really about, and it ain’t just biscuits.



Mary Berry’s Cultural Capital and Gregg Wallace’s Love of Sociology

Mary Berry’s recent comments against deep fat fryers and Jaffa cake dunking could be interpreted (using Bourdieu) as an example of the unconscious process through which the middle classes assert and maintain their superiority by defining working class practices as ‘bad taste’ and ‘unhealthy’.

mary berry
Mary Berry – Inflicting ‘silent harms’ against the working class every time she bakes a cake?

Gregg Wallace picked up on this with his comments about Berry’s attack on fried food as an attack on the British way of life, in fact, from a Bourdieuean (if that’s even a word?) perspective  this is only really an unconscious attack against a working class way of life, part of the usual day to day process through which the middle classes (such as Berry) assert their arbitrary tastes (the ones they grew up with) as ‘normal’ ‘healthy’ or just ‘right’ against working class dispositions which are simultaneously defined as ‘abnormal’ ‘unhealthy’ or just ‘wrong’.

Mary Berry is here demonstrating a sociological concept called ‘cultural capital‘ – a simplified definition of which is the skills and knowledges a group uses to define itself as superior and thus gain or maintain advantage (more status, power, wealth) in society’.  A lot of sociological research has focused on how the middle classes are able to use their cultural capital to give their children and advantage in the education system, and simultaneously disadvantage working class children, but I think it applies quite nicely to the world of food, dining and health too.

As Steph Lawler (2014) says, in her excellent introductory text on the sociology of identity…

‘One of the ways class works is through marking identities as ‘wrong’ or ‘right’, pathological or healthy, normal or abnormal, and classed identities are part of the stakes in class politics – working class people don’t know the right things, they don’t value the right things, they don’t look right and they don’t act right, while the middle classes silently pass as normal.’ 

Class divisions and distinctions have not disappeared, class has not ceased to be a meaningful frame for analysis, instead it has become an absent presence – it circulates socially while being unnamed.

As Bourdieu has demonstrated ‘taste’ is now one of the primary means through which class is configured – that which is tasteful is seen as middle class, and vice-versa for ‘vulgar’ working class taste – the problem here is that there is nothing natural about taste – it is simply what the middle class say it is.

Expressions of disgust at working-class existence remain rife among middle class commentators and middle classness relies on the expulsion and exclusion of (what is held to be) working classness.

Where does this sense of disgust come from?

Bourdieu argued that the public bourgeoisie (mainly journalists and academics, and social commentators), those who are low in economic capital, but high in cultural capital, use their voices to express contempt for the working classes, and at the same time position their middle class selves against them.

So from this perspective, Berry herself must feel low in status compared to the ‘proper rich’, and makes up for this sense of status-frustration by defining her ‘good manners’ as superior.

This is ultimately all about power, about the broader practice of the middle classes trying to position themselves above the working classes by defining them as inferior along the axis of taste.

However, the fact that all of this is social in origin, and the fact that power is operating here is obscured, because

  • part of this process of constructing middle-classness (converting cultural capital into symbolic capital) involves using knowledge itself
  • because the cultural capital is marked as ‘normal’ the fact that it is classed at all is obscured.
  • the competencies and knowledges associated with the middle class are not generally seen as social mechanisms because they are believed to be part of the self, and thus class is not seen as an objective position but it becomes configured into ‘who we are’.

Mary Berry and Individualisation (?)

Another process which Berry is engaged in is that of individualisation – the cultural capital dimension of class is social in origin and circulation, but part of that circulation involves sending out the message that these tastes are all down to the individual – thus if someone has ‘superior’ ‘middle class’ tastes they believe they have chosen this, and vice versa for those with vulgar working-class tastes – they are invited by the middle classes to feel a sense of shame about this and to blame themselves for their own inferiority.

NOW do you think Mary Berry is such a sweet lady? – From this Bourdeuian perspective, in reality she’s the evil arbitrator of cultural capital, inflicting the hidden damages of class on  deep-frying, jaffa-cake dunking working class people all over the country, well, mostly up north.

If this all sounds like it’s making a mountain out of a mole-hill, that’s precisely the point of the post because what doesn’t seem like a big deal really is… this is precisely how class divisions are perpetuated in contemporary society…

‘What we read as objective class divisions are produced and maintained by the middle class in the minutiae of everyday practice, as judgements of culture are put into effect’ (Skeggs, 2004, 118, again taken from Lawler).

On this final point, Sennet and Cobb (1977) famously observed that class inflicts hidden injuries – in terms of the ridicule, shaming, silence and self-scrutiny which go along with a position of pathology.

I thus felt it my professional duty to point Gregg Wallace in the direction of Bourdieu in order to help him defend our working class position against such subtle injuries.

There’s nothing wrong with eating fried food, dunking biscuits, or anything else which may not be middle class, but if one lets such things pass in silence, such practices have a tendency to being internalised as wrong and thus silently annihilated.

And P.S. It’s official – Gregg Wallace loves Sociology.

Gregg Wallace Loves Sociology

NB – I’m not suggesting that this type of analysis is in any way correct, it’s merely an example of how you might interpret recent events using a Bourdieuean (is that a word?) framework.

Related Posts 

Cultural Capital (focusing on its application to educational achievement)

You might also want to have another look at some of those make-over programmes – surely this is just a case of middle class ‘experts’ empowering themselves through shaming the distasteful working classes?

Middle Class Identity – A Summary of a chapter of Steph Lawler’s book on class and identity


Sociology on TV – August 2016

A new monthly post outlining recent programmes relevant to Sociology on TV – most will be on the BBC as iPlayer’s what I mainly use to access televisual hyperreality.

Just one to kick off with – because I just watched it. This might well be the only programme and the only post too, this kind of thing’s got ‘summer project, no way I’ll keep this up when term starts’ written all the way through it.

Britain’s Hardest Workers: Inside the Low Wage Economy

Useful for showing the extent of inequality in Britain, and providing an insight into life in low-pay work. You could supplement this with Polly Toynbe’s ‘Hard Work’ which provides more in-sight through participant observation and interviews.

A documentary in which 20 workers compete against each other in some of Britain’s lowest wage jobs – after four hours in each job, the least productive workers get sent home. In the first episode the workers work as hotel cleaners and as waste-pickers (recycling paper).

This is actually quite an insightful documentary – the whole process is overseen by a manager who analyses performance data, which is benchmarked against industry averages – 24 minutes to clean a hotel room, 100KG of paper waste picked in an hour per person (roughly – actually I think that was right, sounds like a lot of paper) – so you get a decent look at what life is like in these jobs, and what people have to actually do for minimum wage.

Of course you get the usual life-stories from the various workers, but this in itself is quite interesting too – most of them seem to have suffered genuine hardship, in the form of coming from a deprived background or having lost a decent job – so they all seem to actually need a job. In other words, these aren’t your usual people – not the privileged middle classes

Which is unlike the presenter and the various journalists she interviews who provide no real insight into how we got into this mess in the first place.

So an odd one this – the bits I usually find interesting (the analysis) isn’t and the bits I usually fast-forward – the personal-stuff is more interesting.