Quinnipiac University College of Arts and Sciences

Studying Social Stratification

In Research, Students on November 28, 2011 at 3:45 pm

By Xi Chen, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Suzanne Hudd, Professor of Sociology

In a semester where “the 99%” are occupying Wall Street, and where the cover of Time magazine this week asks whether one can “still move up in America,” students in Social Stratification (SO 244) are heading into the community to explore these issues first hand. In Social Stratification, students study the ways in which race, class and gender affect our life chances-our opportunities and ability to improve our quality of life. Professors Xi Chen and Sue Hudd believe that one way to deepen students’ understanding of the impact of stratification is to provide them with a brief community service experience that connects their classroom learning to the lives of real people.

One important goal in the Social Stratification course is for students to acquire the practice of sociological mindfulness—the ability to see the underlying systems of beliefs and attitudes that play an invisible, and yet powerful role in guiding our actions. According to Michael Schwalbe (2005) in The Sociologically Examined Life, “being sociologically mindful means paying attention to the hardships and options that other people face (5).” Grasping what these “options” look like from a different social perspective can be a struggle for many students. The stratification course is intended to enhance students’ ability to take the perspective of another by providing them with a limited, but intensive contact in the local community that is coupled with a reflective writing assignment designed to integrate classroom lessons and community experience.

In Dr. Chen’s class, students are given the option to enter one of three field sites for a day: at Columbus House the students prepare dinner and serve it to those who come to the shelter; at Master’s Manna, they help in the soup kitchen, distribute groceries, and babysit; while at the Mary Wade home, students engage in a conversation group with the elderly about their life experience and favorite memories. All three non-profit organizations provide care for the poor and the elderly in the New Haven region. In the associated writing assignment, Chen’s students describe their service experience and link it to sociological knowledge they have acquired throughout the semester. Many students have commented that they learn more from the service trip than sitting in the classroom and listening to the lecture alone and that their community experience deepens their understanding of stratification concepts. Some even find a place where they hope to have a more extended field experience. As Julia Cohen, a sophomore sociology major in Chen’s stratification course notes, “I wish I knew about this place (Master’s Manna) earlier, so I could come here often to help these people. I want to work as an intern here in the future.”

In Professor Hudd’s stratification class, students have the experience of “making a difference” and yet they never set foot in the community. Using a real, but anonymous, case profile of an active family enrolled at the Keefe Community Center in Hamden, Hudd’s students are charged with understanding the family needs, and then conducting research on social programs that are available to address these concerns. As part of the project, students provide a Thanksgiving basket of food that is delivered to the family. Being sociologically mindful in their research, students learn that the process through which the family acquires services can sometimes be as important as the services they receive. And so during the course of their research, they are encouraged to think about questions such as: What is it like for a family without a college education to access “the system?” Are their needs ever fully met? What impact does the receipt of public services have on the family’s daily life? Students are oriented to the Keefe Center philosophy—addressing individual needs through intensive case management—by Siraj Mohammed, a social worker at the Keefe Center who attends class to answer their questions and to offer a realistic sense of what life is like for families served by the Center.

It is this lesson, the ability to take the perspective of another, to develop an appreciation for the dignity of people from different backgrounds than one’s own that is perhaps the most powerful outcome of the Social Stratification class. And in keeping with the goals of the New Synthesis, this lesson is one that carries value both inside and outside the Sociology major. Nicole Fano, a sociology minor in Hudd’s class observes that “I have taken several classes that urged students to think critically about various financial, class, and racial groups. However, in the social stratification class, students are required to actually put these lessons about open mindedness into practice. This community work project has challenged me to open my eyes to different families and different lifestyles.…Social stratification has taught me real-life lessons which I will be able to apply in my future as a print journalism major.”

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