Shop ‘Til You Drop – or Until the Final Exam: Researcher Pens Textbook That Uses Consumer Culture to Introduce Students to Sociology

By Tom McLaughlin

Ah, the holidays. Racing here and there to buy presents for loved ones. Stocking up on snacks for family gatherings. Taking advantage of Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales.

“Perhaps, more than any other time of the year, the holidays reveal the significant role of consumer culture in our daily lives,” says Kate Cairns, an assistant professor of childhood studies at Rutgers University–Camden. “But did you ever stop to think that a trip to the store might provide a lesson in sociology?”

That fundamental question is at the root of an enlightening new textbook, Introducing Sociology Using the Stuff of Everyday Life, coauthored by Cairns and fellow researchers Josée Johnston and Shyon Baumann of the University of Toronto.

According to Cairns, the researchers set out to introduce sociological thinking through an engaging thematic focus that has meaning in students’ lives. They found that consumer culture – an area very familiar to students – was a perfect way to inspire their sociological imaginations.

“It’s a great way for them to think about how seemingly individual choices and outcomes are shaped by broader structural forces,” explains Cairns. “Sometimes introductory sociology textbooks can seem dry and disconnected from the lived realities of students. But in fact, sociology should be about thinking critically about the world around us, not simply memorizing facts about scholars who lived hundreds of years ago.”

The book shows that you can’t judge virtually anything by its cover. It begins with a case study of jeans to introduce students to the concept of the sociological imagination, which is the idea that sociology can be used to shed light on the social origins of personal issues. Another chapter on fast food explores Marxist approaches to wage labor and alienation in a capitalist economy, and uses the current campaign for a $15 minimum wage to discuss the study of social movements. A chapter on phones explores the relationship between technology and social change, and introduces the study of social capital and social networks.

Moreover, some chapters explore broader consumer phenomena rather than a single item. For example, a chapter on the wedding industry introduces the sociology of marriage and the family, and a chapter on sports examines the social construction of race and the sociological study of racism.

Each chapter features a specific method for conducting sociological research, such as interviews, surveys, or field experiments. In this way, students are introduced to a range of methods throughout the book, and these methods are brought to life through specific examples.

Cairns notes that, while students may already feel a sense of expertise regarding case studies explored in specific chapters – from fashion, to toys, to the music industry – a central goal of the book is for them to gain a sociological perspective on “the stuff” that is already central to their lives.

“For example, you may be a Starbucks connoisseur, but be surprised to find what your coffee order reveals about the connections between culture, class, and status,” says Cairns. “In this book, we are encouraging students to go beyond memorizing facts and, instead, put sociological concepts to work.”

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