by Kia Heise

To Help Our Students Understand Inequality, Show Them How to ‘Zoom Out’

To help our students understand the causes and consequences of social inequality, we need to help them learn how to think sociologically. 

What is a Sociological Perspective?

I am a sociologist. Most people don’t really know what sociologists do. We’re often confused with social workers or psychologists. All three fields are connected, but the sociological perspective is unique.

Sociology is the study of society. It’s about me and you and everyone else, working, playing, parenting, and praying. It includes everything that we do together. It’s about how we organize ourselves and others into groups and the impact of those groups on our lives. It’s about who has power and why and how that power or lack of power impacts our lives. It’s about our institutions, which means work, school, healthcare, the criminal justice system, and our government. It’s about our values, and what people in any given society think is normal or natural, good or bad, and how that differs across time and place. 

Because sociology examines societies from the outside, it’s an excellent tool for helping us understand why things are the way they are. It’s difficult to understand your own society because things that feel normal are difficult to see. 

When we take an individualistic view of the world, as we often do in the United States, we individualize problems that are actually social problems. The problem with the individualistic way of thinking is that no one does anything–good or bad–completely on their own. We are shaped by the society that we live in and by opportunities we have no control over. Everyone makes their own choices, but we are not all given the same set of choices. When opportunities are available to some groups more than others, in a patterned way, that is the cause of social inequalities. 

A sociological perspective helps us “zoom out” and see the bigger picture. It helps us understand the causes of our problems and helps us see the solutions. It’s a powerful tool to use when guiding our students. 

Zooming Out to See the Social Structure

The vast majority of Americans believe in the idea of equal opportunity and want a just society. But that desire does not translate into actual equality across groups. Why? This is where we need to zoom out from the individual to the social. We need to pay attention to the structures keeping inequality in place. This means laws, policies, and norms, historically and today. It’s not easy to change these structures unless we specifically recognize their impact on inequality. And if we are only focused on individual feelings, we completely miss that structural piece. 

To better understand the social structure, think of it like a building. Imagine your school building. It was there before you entered it and it’s still there after you leave. We can change some things about it, like decorations or moving chairs around, but we can’t move the walls. Yes, it was created by people–it’s not natural–but it’s still not easy to change. Only a few people at the top have that power. They could move the walls if they wanted to. Or, if we organized and got a lot of people involved, we could convince them to move the walls. That’s how the social structure works as well. It’s a social creation, but it’s hard to change. We need power and collective action to do it. 

So, take racism or sexism. If we only focus on the individual, we think of people as racist/sexist or not racist/sexist. Well, no one thinks of themselves as racist or sexist. So if no one is racist or sexist, how can we still have racial and gender inequality? That’s where we need to zoom out and see the big picture. How do our laws, policies, and cultural norms create and prop up racial and gender inequality? That’s the social structure. 

Making Sense of Social Inequality 

So how do we SEE the social structure impacting our lives? Here are some guiding questions for educators as we think about how to help our students to see “the big picture” of any social issue:

  • What information (statistics/data) do we need to know first to understand this issue? 
  • What has happened (events/laws/policies) in the past that helped to create this issue? 
  • What cultural norms and values do we need to pay attention to in order to understand what has happened? 

We cannot make sense of the social inequality we observe today without first understanding the historical, political, and cultural context of any specific issue. Zooming out to see this social context is key to discussing complex topics in a way that doesn’t devolve into binary arguments. This approach also allows us to “de-personalize” tough subjects and not put anyone in the classroom in the position to be a “representative” of their group.

When you learn to think sociologically, when you start to see the world from the “outside-in,” you can never turn it off. You will forever be questioning why things are the way they are and wondering how to make things better. That’s the blessing (and sometimes the curse) of the sociological perspective. 

Young people get only a handful of formative adults in their lives before they have to make it on their own. Let’s make sure we give them the tools to go out into the larger society with a rich understanding of how it works, how they fit into it, and how they can leave things better than they found them.

Kia Heise
AboutKia Heise
Dr. Kia Heise earned her doctorate in Sociology from the University of Minnesota. Before joining Mackin Learning, she taught Sociology courses at the college level in Los Angeles and the Twin Cities for several years. Her approach is informed by thousands of hours learning how to navigate discussions of social inequality with diverse groups of young people.
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