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Reading suggestions from some budding sociologists

By Lizzy Hoham, English and Social Studies Teacher

The first day of school, I asked my junior and senior sociology students to tell me what they thought the discipline was. They were much better at telling me what it wasn’t: psychology, anthropology, archaeology or any “hard” science like chemistry or biology. 

Sociology is a one-semester social studies elective offered at Concordia, and in it my students find a new lens to view their social world, and ask questions about topics they’ve never before considered.  

If you are looking for some interesting non-fiction reading material, I’d like to share some of the books my sociology students are reading this semester!  

Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets (2008) by Sudhir Venkatesh, currently a professor at Columbia. As a graduate student in 1989 at the University of Chicago, Venkatesh finds himself on a project that begins with an awkward encounter asking a gang member "How does it feel to be black and poor?"  

After years spent "hanging out with" members of the Black Kings gang in the notorious Robert Taylor public housing project, Venkatesh gains insider information on the operations of a Chicago crack gang and the viewpoint of those in the projects. 

The class focus was on the benefits and drawbacks of participant observation research that is, actually living around and watching your subjects instead of merely surveying them  but the content drew lots of interesting questions and discussions well beyond that.

Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything (2006) by Steven D. Levitt and Sephen J. Dubner. A classic text, reprinted and reworked numerous times, we used excerpts to see how analyzing objective data sets can produce unique hypotheses and results. 

We read the chapter tying baby names to future success as part of the lesson on correlation versus causation, but the entire book is worthwhile if you have never read it, or haven’t picked it up in a long time.  

Fist Stick Knife Gun: a Personal History of Violence (2010) by Geoffrey Canada. Both a memoir and an analysis of society, Canada’s book details the shifts in crime and mindsets of the American inner city from his childhood in 1960s South Bronx, through the crack cocaine and explosion of handgun violence of the 80s and 90s. Canada also was involved with the Waiting for Superman documentary and pioneered a successful after-school program called the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York. 

The Glass Castle (2006) by Jeannette Walls. This fascinating memoir shows a much more human side of poverty than typically portrayed in the media. Walls’ family was extremely poor and transient, and she was often legally neglected and bullied by her family and those around whom she grew up. Still, the story is deeply empathetic, drawing the reader into her love for her very flawed family. 

Because we live in a sinful world and my students are mature juniors and seniors, do note that these texts often contain graphic scenes and language. Sociology is often a very activist, politicized discipline, but we do strive to maintain both an objective worldview when we examine data, and a Christian worldview when we discuss the people which the data concerns. 

I hope these texts enlighten you and, as I hope for my students, help create better global citizens.