My weekly ‘Monday teaching and learning’ post: I’ve been thinking about questioning in A-level Sociology recently,* in particular I’ve been asking myself ‘what are the best quick-fire questions to ask students about theories and concepts’ and ‘what’s the best way to present these questions’?
By ‘best’ I mean what kinds of questioning style will most effectively develop knowledge recall, understanding and the skills of application, analysis and evaluation? And how can this be done quickly!
I’m only really interested here in questioning as a review activity (not the kinds of question you ask during a regular lesson), so this is meant for recapping previous lessons work, as part of a plenary, or as part of a revision lesson.
As I see it, the most effective way to ask questions is to do so in a hierarchical order, starting with basic recall, and moving up through application, analysis, and evaluation, and you could even tag on a conclusion type question at the end.
I tend to ask eight questions to recap any theory or concept… In the example below, I used these questions on a PPT with the headings as titles and the prompts in the main body of each slide. This was a simple, verbal pair-work recap task (with the usual further development questions tagged on). There’s also nothing from stopping you dumping these questions onto Socrative.
I also use prompts to speed things up, and you could of course make these prompts as cards and for each slide get students to do ranking/ sorting exercises.
Eight Questions About Dependency Theory
(which could be asked about any other theory or concept)
(AO1) Explain why poor countries are poor according to Dependency Theory
HINT: Use the following concepts…
(A01) Give some examples which best illustrates Dependency Theory
Try to think of one ‘developed’ and one ‘less developed’ nation
(AO2) Apply Dependency Theory to something else…
Use Dependency Theory to evaluate Modernisation Theory
What do you think the function of education in poor countries might be according to Dependency Theory?
(A03) Analyse Dependency Theory: How does the theory/ concept relate to the following concepts below:
Marxist theory more generally
(A03) Analyse Dependency Theory
Who developed it (where did it come from)?
If you could convince everyone it’s true, then whose interests does it serve?
(AO3) Evaluate Dependency Theory using evidence
Identify as many pieces of supporting evidence as you can
Identify as many pieces of counter-evidence as you can…
(A03) Evaluate using other theories
HINT: What would Modernization Theory say about this theory?
(AO2) Interim Conclusion – How useful is Dependency Theory?
HINT: Where ’10’ is explains everything and 0 is explains nothing, what score would you give Dependency Theory out of 10 in explaining why rich countries and rich and poor countries poor?
Asking these eight questions in relation to other theories and concepts…
Other topics I’ve used this template with recently include (with different prompts) The Functionalist View of Education, The Correspondence Principle (focusing in more deeply on just one Marxist concept of education), The Neoliberal Theory of Economic Development and the concept of Gross National Income as an indicator of development (the kind of concepts this 8 question hierarchy works well for might actually surprise you).
Of course this won’t work for everything and will need tweeking, but to my mind, this is a nice general questioning structure that ticks my 20-80 rule – spend 20 mins prepping to get 80 mins of students doing – NOT the inverse!
*I’m fairly sure this is a big contributor to mental illness among teachers, it’s exhausting.
Social Surveys are one of the most common methods for routinely collecting data in sociology and the social sciences more generally. There are lots of examples of where we use social surveys throughout the families and households module in the A level sociology syllabus – so what do they tell us about family life in modern Britain, and what are their strengths and limitations….?
This information should be useful for both families and households and for exploring the strengths and limitations of social surveys for research methods…
Attitudes to marriage surveys
Headline Fact – in 2016, only 37% of the UK population believe people should be married before they have children.
For the first time since NatCen started asking whether people who want to have children ought to be married, the proportion who disagree (35%) is almost the same as those who agree (37%).
Back in 1989, seven people in ten (70%) felt that people should be married if they want to have children, compared with less two in ten (17%) who disagreed.
It’s actually worth noting how quickly attitudes have changed since the previous survey in 2012, as demonstrated in the info graphic below – in 2016 it’s now down to 37%
What are the strengths of this survey (focussing on this one question)?
I’m tempted to say the validity is probably quite good, as this isn’t a particularly sensitive topic, and the focus of the question is the ‘generalised other’, so there should be no social desirability.
It’s very useful for making comparisons over time – given that the same question has been asked in pretty much the same way for quite a few years now…
Representativeness seems to be OK – NatCen sampled a range of ages, and people with different political views, so we can compare all that too – no surprises here btw – the old and the conservatives are more likely to be in favour of marriage.
What are the limitations of this survey?
As with all surveys, there’s no indication of why belief in marriage is in decline, no depth or insight.
The question above is so generalised, it might give us a false impression of how liberal people are. I wonder how much the results would change if you made the questions more personal – would you rather your own son/ daughter should be married before they had children? Or just different – ‘all other things being equal, it’s better for children to be brought up by married parents, rather than by non-married-parents’ – and then likehert scale it. Of course that question itself is maybe just a little leading….
Headline ‘fact’ – women still do 60% more housework than men (based on ONS data from 2014-15)
Women put in more than double the proportion of unpaid work when it comes to cooking, childcare and housework and on average men do 16 hours a week of such unpaid work compared to the 26 hours of unpaid work done by women a week.
The only area where men put in more unpaid work hours than women is in the provision of transport – this includes driving themselves and others around, as well as commuting to work.
This data is derived from the The UK Time Diary Study (2014-15) – which used a combination of time-use surveys and interviews to collect data from around 9000 people in 4000 households.
It’s worth noting that even though the respondents were merely filling in a few pages worth of diary, this document contains over 200 pages of technical details, mainly advice on how researchers are supposed to code responses.
What are the strengths of this survey?
The usual ease of comparison. You can clearly see the differences in hours between men and women – NB the survey also shows differences by age and social class, but I haven’t included that here (to keep things brief).
It’s a relatively simply topic, so there’s unlikely to be any validity errors due to interpretation on the part of people completing the surveys: it’s obvious what ‘washing clothes’ means for example.
This seems to suggest the continued relevance of Feminism to helping us understand and combat gender inequality in the private sphere.
What are the limitations of this data?
click on the above link and you’ll find that there is only a 50% response rate…. which makes the representativeness of this data questionable. If we take into account social desirability, then surely those couples with more equal housework patterns will more likely to return then, and also the busier the couple, the less likely they are to do the surveys. NO, really not convinced about the representativeness here!
this research tells us nothing about why these inequalities exist – to what extent is this situation freely chosen, and to what extent is it down to an ‘oppressive socialisation into traditional gender norms’ or just straightforward coercion?
given all of the coding involved, I’m not even convinced that this is really that practically advantageous…. overall this research seems to have taken quite a long time, which is a problem given the first criticism above!
Surveys on Children’s Media Usage
Headline Fact: 5 – 15 year olds spend an average of 38 hours a week either watching TV, online or gaming.
It’s also worth noting that for the first time, in 2016, children aged 5-15 say they spend more time online than they do watching television on a TV set.
It makes comparisons over time easy, as the same questions are asked over a number of different years.
Other than that, I think there are more problems!
Limitations of this Survey
There are no details of how the sample was achieved in the methodology – so I can’t comment on the representativeness.
These are just estimations from the children and parents – this data may have been misrepresented. Children especially might exaggerate their media usage when alone, but downplay it if a parent is present.
I’m especially suspicious of the data for the 3-7 year olds, given that this comes from the parent, not the child… there’s a strong likelihood of social desirability leading to under-reporting… good parents don’t let their kids spend too much time online after all!
Further examples of surveys on the family
If you like this sort of thing, you might also want to explore these surveys…
This post offers some advice on how you might plan and write essays in the A level sociology exams.
The sociology A level exam: general hints for writing essays
Allow yourself enough time – 1.5 minutes per mark = 45 minutes for a 30 mark essay.
Read the Question and the item, what is it asking you to do?
Do a rough plan (5-10 mins) – initially this should be ‘arguments and evidence’ for and ‘against’ the views in the question, and a few thoughts on overall evaluations/ a conclusion. If you are being asked to look at two things, you’ll have to do this twice/ your conclusion should bring the two aspects of the essay together.
Write the essay (35 mins)– aim to make 3-5 points in total (depending on the essay, either 3 deep points, or 5 (or more) shallower points). Try to make one point at least stem from the item, ideally the first point.
Try to stick to the following structure in the picture above!
Overall evaluations – don’t repeat yourself, and don’t overdo this, but it’s useful t tag this in before a conclusion.
Conclusion (allow 2 mins minimum) – an easy way to do this is to refer to the item – do you agree with the view or not, or say which of the points you’ve made is the strongest/ weakest and on balance is the view in the question sensible or not?
Skills in the A Level Sociology Exam
The AQA wants you to demonstrate 3 sets of skills in the exam – below are a few suggestions about how you can do this in sociology essays.
AO1: Knowledge and Understanding
You can demonstrate these by:
Using sociological concepts
Using sociological perspectives
Using research studies
Showing knowledge of contemporary trends and news events
Knowledge can also be synoptic, or be taken from other topics.
NB – knowledge has to be relevant to the question to get marks!
You can demonstrate application by…
Using the item – refer to the item!!!
Clearly showing how the material you have selected is relevant to the question, by using the words in the question
Making sure knowledge selected is relevant to the question.
AO3: Analysis and Evaluation (NB ‘Assess’ is basically the same as Evaluation)
You can demonstrate analysis by….
Considering an argument from a range of perspectives – showing how one perspective might interpret the same evidence in a different way, for example.
Developing points – by showing why perspectives argue what they do, for example.
Comparing and contrasting ideas to show their differences and similarities
You can show how points relate to other points in the essay.
You can demonstrate evaluation by…
Discussing the strengths and limitations of a theory/ perspective or research method.
You should evaluate each point, but you can also do overall evaluations from other perspectives before your conclusion.
NB – Most people focus on weaknesses, but you should also focus on strengths.
Weighing up which points are the most useful in a conclusion.
A note on using the item:
Every 30 mark question will ask you to refer to an ‘item’. This will be a very short piece of writing, consisting of about 8 lines of text. The item will typically refer to one aspect of the knowledge side of the question and one evaluation point. For example, if the question is asking you to ‘assess the Functionalist view of education’, the item is likely to refer to one point Functionalists make about education – such as role allocation, and one criticism.
All you need to do to use the item effectively is to make sure at least one of your points stems from the knowledge in the item, and develop it. It’s a good idea to make this your first point. To use the evaluation point from the item (there is usually some evaluation in there), then simply flag it up when you use it during the essay.
Seven examples of sociology essays, and more advice…
For more information on ‘how to write sociology essays for the A level exam’ why not refer to my handy ‘how to write sociology essays guide’.
The contents are as follows:
A quick look at the three sociology exam papers
A pared-down mark scheme for A Level sociology essays
Knowledge, application, analysis, evaluation, what are they, how to demonstrate them.
How to write sociology essays – the basics:
These appear first in template form, then with answers, with the skills employed shown in colour. Answers are ‘overkill’ versions designed to get full marks in the exam.
Assess the Functionalist View of the Role of Education in Society (30) – Quick plan
Assess the Marxist view of the role of education in society (30) – Detailed full essay
Assess the extent to which it is home background that is the main cause of differential education achievement by social class (30) – Detailed full essay
Assess the view that education policies since 1988 have improved equality of educational opportunity (30) – Quick plan
Assess the view that the main aim of education policies since 1988 has been to raise overall standards in education.’ (30) – Quick plan
Assess the claim that ‘ethnic difference in educational achievement are primarily the result of school factors’ (30) – Detailed full essay
Assess the view that in school processes, rather than external factors, are the most important in explaining differences in educational achievement (30) – detailed essay – Quick plan.
Social Facts are one of Emile Durkheim’s most significant contributions to sociology. Social facts are things such as institutions, norms and values which exist external to the individual and constrain the individual.
The University of Colorado lists as examples of social facts: institutions, statuses, roles, laws, beliefs, population distribution, urbanization, etc. Social facts include social institutions, social activities and [the strata of society – for example the class structure, subcultures etc.]
The video below provides a useful introduction to the concept of social facts….
The video suggests that the concept ‘social fact’ is a broad term designed to encompass the social environment which constrains individual behaviour.
It uses the analogy of a how the physical structure of a room limits our actions (we can only go in and through the door or windows for example; in the same way the social facts which make up our social environment constrains us – norms, values, beliefs, ideologies and so on effectively limit our choices.
Sociology is about identifying the relationship between the social conditions and people’s behaviour.
This second video is a bit more complex…
According to Durkheim, social facts emerge out of collectives of individuals, they cannot be reduced to the level of individuals – and this social reality is real, and it exists above the level of the individual, sociology is the study of this ‘level above the individual’.
As far as Durkheim was concerned this was no different to the concept that human life is greater than the sum of the individual cells which make it up – society has a reality above that of the individuals who constitute it.
A key idea of Durkheim – that we should never reduce the study of society to the level of the individual, we should remain at the level of social facts and aim to explain social action in relation to social facts.
(Not in the video) – this is precisely what Durkheim did in his study of suicide by trying to explain variations in the suicide rate (which is above the level of the individual) through other social facts, such as the divorce rate, the pace of economic growth, the type of religion (all of which he further reduced to two basic variables – social integration and social regulation.
In this way sociology should aim to be scientific, it should not study individuals, but scientific trends at the level above the individual. This is basically the Positivist approach to studying society, as laid down in Durkhiem’s 1895 work ‘The Rules of Sociological Method’.
NB Durkheim’s study of suicide is just about the best illustration of the application of social facts that there is – In which he researched official statistics on suicide in several European countries and found that the suicide rate was influenced by social facts such as the divorce rate, the religion of a country, and the pace of economic and social changed – Durkheim further theorized that the suicide rate increased when there was either too much or too little integration and regulation in society.
The major criticism of Durkheim’s concept of social facts is that the statistics he claims to be ‘social facts’ aren’t – suicide stats are open to manipulation by the people who record them (coroners) – and there is huge potential for several suicides (intentional deaths) to be mis-recorded as open verdicts or accidental deaths and thus we can never be 100% certain of the validity of this data, thus theorising on the basis of cross national comparisons based on said data is risky.
It is possible to apply this ‘social construction critique’ to a range of statistics – such as crime stats, unemployment stats, immigration stats, happiness stats, and a whole load more, which means that while there may be a really existing social world external to the individual, it’s not necessarily possible to know or measure that world with any degree of certainty or to understand how all of the various social facts out there interact with each other. NB This may well explain why no one seems to be able to make predictions about economic crashes, Arab Springs, or election results these days!
Other critics, such as phenomenologists (kind of like precursors to Postmodernists), argue that the whole concept of an external reality is itself flawed, and that instead of one external reality which constrains individuals there are a multitude of more fluid and diverse social realities which arise and fade with social interaction. From this perspective, we may think there is a system of social norms and values out there in the world, but this is only ‘real’ for us if we think it to be real; this is nothing more than a thought, and thus in ‘reality’ we are really free as individuals. (Monstrously free, if you like, to coin a phrase.)
Do Social Facts Exist?
Durkheim’s view of society and the Positivist method have been conceived over 100 years ago, and it has been severely criticised by Interpretivists and Postmodernists, but this hasn’t stopped many researchers from adopting a quantitative, scientific approach to analysing social trends and social problems at the level of society rather than at the level of the individual, and there does seem to be something in the view that society constrains us in subtle and often unnoticed ways, many of which you would’ve come across over the two year A level sociology course.
Firstly, the suicide rate still varies according to various social factors (‘social facts’?)
For example, after noting that the male suicide rate is 3 times higher than the female suicide rate, and highest for men in their late 40s, This 2016 suicide report by the Samaritans (UK focus) notes that ‘Research suggests that social and economic factors influence the risk of suicide in women as well as men’
Hence as Durkheim said in the 19th century, the decision to kill yourself isn’t just a personal decision, it’s influenced by whether your’re male or female and your age. (As a 43 year old male, I don’t find this graph particularly encouraging, then again at least I’m into ‘the hump’ rather than staring at it from my 30s and with only 8 years of shit to go.)
Secondly, the birth rate/ total fertility rate seem to be effected by a number of ‘social facts’
Think back to the module on the family – while the decision to have babies seems personal and private, the number of children women have, and the age at which they have them seems to be influenced heavily by society. The decline in the birth rate is now a global trend – and while there are different ’causes’ which have led to its reduction, some of the more common ones appear to be women’s empowerment and education , economic growth and state-promoted family planning.
According to the The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) there are a number of factors that can play a role in a country’s fertility rates, including its investment in education, the availability of family planning services, the status of women’s rights and the prevalence of early and forced marriage.
“Population dynamics are not destiny,” the UNFPA’s population matters report says. “Change is possible through a set of policies which respect human rights and freedoms and contribute to a reduction in fertility, notably access to sexual and reproductive healthcare, education beyond the primary level, and the empowerment of women.”
Thirdly, educational achievement still varies enormously by (the social fact of) social class background
It’s depressing to have to remind you about it, but from the Education module you learnt that social class background has a profound impact on educational achievement. The graph below shows achievement by FSM pupils compared to all other pupils. ‘FSM’ stands for ‘Free School Meals’ – to qualify for FSM status a child needs to be in approximately the bottom sixth of households by income -NB FSM is only a proxy for social class, one indicator of it, the only one we have to hand which is convenient. (The government doesn’t collect information on social class and educational achievement for ideological reasons).
Keep in mind that this is the bottom sixth by income compared to all other pupils. If you separated out the top sixth, you’d probably see a 90% 5 A-C achievement rate (or something like that).
Again if you think back to the lessons on material and cultural deprivation, coming from a poor background seems to weigh heavily on ‘poor kids’ while coming from a middle class background confers material and cultural advantage on the children of wealthier parents. Sad to say but educational results in England and Wales are most definitely NOT a reflection of just intelligence.
Chapter by chapter, graph by graph, the authors demonstrate that the more unequal a rich country is,the worse its performance is likely to be in a whole range of variables including:
amount of mental illness
use of illegal drugs
teenage pregnancy rates
homicide and imprisonment rates
levels of mutual trust between citizens
maths and literacy attainment
social mobility (children rising in social scale compared with their parents)
spending on foreign aid
The authors consider and eliminate other possibilities, and conclude:
‘It is very difficult to see how the enormous variations which exist from one society to another in the level of problems associated with low social status can be explained without accepting that inequality is the common denominator, and a hugely damaging force.”
Inequalities erode “social capital”, that is, the cohesion of a society, the degree to which individual citizens are involved in their society, the strength of the social networks within it, and the degree of trust and empathy between citizens.
The mechanisms by which inequality impacts on societies, it is suggested, is that individuals internalise inequality, that their psyches are profoundly affected by it, and that that in turn affects physical as well as mental health, and leads to attitudes and behaviours which appear as a variety of social and health problems.’
So if you’ve got an anxiety disorder, blame Thatcher, she’s the one whose government kick started the march towards inequality.
Social Facts… In summary
According to Durkheim (a French dude from the 19th century), society exists at a level above the individual and it kind of has a life of its own. It consists of social facts such as institutions and the class structure which constrain individuals depending on their relation to said social facts.
Durkheim believed that we should limit ourselves to studying ‘social facts’ at the level of society – aim to understand how and why social trends vary, and do this in a scientific way.
Understanding more about how these social forces drive social change, and deriving the laws which govern human interaction is the point of sociology according to Durkheim, and doing this requires us to study social facts at the level of society, there is no need to focus on individuals.
Some of the findings of this type of research based on social facts include…….
Being male, 40-50, poor, and divorced means you are more miserable and more likely to kill yourself (Oh yeah, I’m not poor, or divorced, so yay I’m OK!)
Economic growth, female empowerment, and family planning policies have led to women having fewer babies
Being from a poor household means you’re much more likely to get crap CGSEs
The more unequal a country in terms of wealth and income the worse of everyone is in pretty much every way imaginable, especially those at the bottom.
So that’s all pretty useful, right? Basically we need to make the world more equal, empower more women, and help poor children and middle aged men more and everything’ll be a whole lot better….
Broken Windows Theory suggests that high levels of physical disorder such as litter, graffiti, vandalism, or people engaged in Anti-Social Behaviour will result in higher crime rates. Broken Windows Theory is one aspect of the Right Realist approach to criminology
The evidence supporting Broken Windows Theory is somewhat mixed
This 2008 ‘£5 Note Theft and Social Disorder Experiment’ offers broad support for the theory…
In this (slightly bizarre sounding) experiment an envelope containing a £5 note was left poking out a letterbox, in such a way that the £5 note was easily visible. The researchers did this first of all with a tidy garden, and later on (similar time of day) with litter in the garden – on the first occasion 13% of people took the envelope, on the second, the percentage doubled to 25% – suggesting that signs of physical disorder such as littering encourage deviant behaviour.
The experiment was actually a bit more complex – for the full details see the Keizer et al source below – this was also actually one of six experiments designed to test out Wilson and Kelling’s 1996 ‘broken windows theory’.
A second experiment, however, does not support broken windows theory…
Empirical results of the “Moving to Opportunity” program (reviewed in 2006) – a social experiment in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Baltimore and Boston did not support Broken Windows Theory. As part of the program, some 4,600 low-income families living in high-crime public housing communities—characterized by high rates of social disorder—were randomly assigned housing vouchers to move to less disadvantaged and less disorderly communities. Using official arrests and self-report surveys, the crime rates among those who moved and those who did not remained the same.
The problems with evaluating Broken Windows Theory
Wesley Skogan (see source below) identifies several reasons why Broken Windows theory is hard to evaluate – mainly focusing on how hard the theory is to operationalise:
Firstly, there are several different ways of defining ‘social disorder’ (litter, vandalism, antisocial behaviour) – so which do you choose?
Secondly it is difficult to measure levels of social disorder accurately – how do you actually measure how much disorder what type of littler represents – is one sofa in a garden worth 14 toffee wrappers, or what? And if you’re talking about anti-social behaviour, you can’t necessarily rely on public reports of it because sensitivity levels vary, and it’s just not practical to measure it using observational techniques.
For these reasons, the validity of broken windows theory is always likely to remain contested, and so it’s worth considering the possibility that it’s popularity could be more to do with ideological bias rather than being based any significant body of supporting evidence.
One of the out of school factors which could explain why girls do better than boys in education is that girls have higher aspirations than boys. Here’s some recent research which supports this while also suggesting that the relationship between gender and aspiration is also strongly influenced by social class background.
The data below’s taken from The British Household Panel Survey and is based on a sample of nearly 5000 10-15 year olds. This research found (among other things!) that that boys are less likely than girls to aspire to go to college / university across all ethnic groups. The numbers are especially divergent for the white ethnic group – 57% (boys) and 74% (girls).
However, when you break things down by social class background (NB this is analysis!) things look more differentiated – Basically, boys from professional class backgrounds aspire to university, but those from all other social class backgrounds generally do not, while girls from all social class backgrounds seem to aspire to go to university.
To put it bluntly (OK crudely) what these statistical comparisons suggest is that working class boys don’t generally aspire to go to university, whereas working class girls do.
Strengths of this data
Nice easy comparisons – As evidenced in the perty charts.
You can use it as broad supporting evidence of girls aspirations being higher than boys, with an ‘analysis twist’
Limitations of this data
Of course the above statistics (this is a classic limitation of quantitative data) tell you nothing about why working class boys but not working class girls do not aspire to go to university. It could be due to parental attitudes filtering down differently to girls than boys, or it may be other factors which have nothing to do with socialisation. These stats don’t actually tell us!
Questions for discussion
Summarize the relationship between social class, gender and educational aspiration
Suggest one reason for the above relationship
Extension Question – This information was relatively easy to find, it’s quite easy to understand, directly relevant to the AS Sociology syllabus and gives you some easy analysis points – how many of the new (forthcoming) AS text books would you expect to find this information in?