Born as an effort to use science as a foundation for studying social problems, sociology is often caricatured as a dour discipline, well equipped to deconstruct what’s wrong with the world, but poorly positioned to teach students how they might change it for the better. (Schwartz & Smith 2010; Wolf 1996; Lenski 1983). While dismantling students’ cherished ideologies and mythologies, sociology professors rarely demonstrate how the discipline can inform alternative systems of values and practices based on more peaceful, just, and humane premises. (Johnson 2005) The Social Problems course, in particular, remains a general litany of the world’s miseries instead of an inspiring peek at how a sociological imagination might empower students to use their individual and collective agency and make a better world. (Dolgon 2013; Desmond 2005)

Historically, the foundations of American sociology embraced active research and service committed to a progressive sense of social justice and civic engagement. (Deegan 2013; Trevino 2012) But much of this tradition became marginalized in the hyperprofessionalism, positivism, and red-baiting of the Post WWII era. (Tuchman 2009; Simpson 1999; Lewontin, et. al. 1996) In response, The Society for the Study of Social Problems [SSSP] started as a professional organization whose founders took seriously the questions Sociology for What? (Lynd 1939) and Sociology for Whom? (Lee 1976). SSSP’s mission not only seeks, “to stimulate the application of scientific method and theory to the study of vital social problems… [and] to the formulation of social policies,” but also commits us to work towards a “higher quality of life, social welfare, and positive social relations in society.” 2013 Presidential, R. A. Dello Buono furthered this commitment by challenging sociologists to more directly align themselves with local and transnational social movements for social justice. (Dello Buono, 2013) Perhaps the most challenging place for such an inspired and committed sociology is in the classroom.

Recently, however, movements towards service learning and public sociology, as well as the scholarship of teaching and learning [SoTL], have advocated a more progressive pedagogical project linking research and teaching to community based-research, service learning, activism, and human rights. (Korgen, White & White 2014; Nyden 2012; Lewis 2005). We believe that a broad-based liberal arts education should be crucial to developing civic engagement and social responsibility in students, and such an approach must effectively combine both analytical sophistication and practical applications for systemic change. (Saltmarsh & Zlotkowski 2011, Huisman 2010) To work towards a just world, students must understand that their active engagement is indispensable in a democracy, but to participate in a democracy, they need the intellectual tools to carefully investigate social problems, their interrelationships and possible solutions. (Dolgon and Baker, 2010; Eitzen & Zinn 2006) Most importantly, we need to develop a clear understanding of power structures and dynamics, and align our teaching with the work of community and social movement organizations. (Morton, et. al 2012; Coghlan & Higgins 2004)

Social media and public discourse have increasingly included false, misleading and conspiracy-story based information that not only muddles debate and consideration of public issues but often diverts attention from more important issues. Thus, addressing critical thinking as part of social problems curriculum has never been more urgent. In addition to the social justice and practical aspects of social problems curriculum, sociological knowledge provides students with tools to decipher and evaluate information. Thus, a social constructionist perspective on how social problems are identified, discussed and addressed are a vital part of a social problems curriculum and should be included in the study and thinking of social problems pedagogy. (Loseke 2003)

The mission of the Teaching Social Problems Division is to help faculty members engage in conversations with their students and develop effective and innovative methods for applying these lessons in the world outside the classroom. (Sandy 2013) To that end, we provide networking opportunities, information about innovative teaching techniques, teaching materials and resources, and support for faculty members. Together we hope to empower each other and bring forward our discipline’s highest visions of a sophisticated social science in active service of a more just and humane world.

Division mission statement reviewed in November 2022 by Ira Silver, Framingham State University, Teaching Social Problems Division Chair, 2021-2023. No edits were made. Division mission statement edited October 2020 by Pattie Thomas, College of Southern Nevada, Teaching Social Problems Division Chair, 2019-2021.

Some Readings:

Ayers, William. 2010. To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher. 3rd Ed. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Coghlan, Catherine L. and Denise W. Huggins. 2004. “’That’s Not Fair!’: A Simulation Exercise in Social Stratification and Structural Inequality.” Teaching Sociology 32(2):177-87.

Deegan, Mary Jo. 2013. Jane Addams, The Hull House School of Sociology, and Social justice, 1895-1932. Humanity and Society, Volume 37, Issue 3. 

Dello Buono, R. A. 2013. “Time to Change the Subject: A New Sociology of Praxis.” Critical Sociology. Volume 39, Number. 6.

Desmond, Scott A. “Prioritizing Social Problems: An Exercise for Exploring Students’ Attitudes about Social Problems.” Teaching Sociology 33(1):59-65.

Dolgon, Corey. 2013. “Teaching and Learning,” in the Handbook of Sociology and Human Rights, edited by David Brunsma, Keri Iyall Smith and Brian Gran. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.

Dolgon Corey and Chris Baker. 2010. Social Problems: A Service Learning Approach. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.

Eitzen, D. Stanley and Kenneth Stewart. 2006. Solutions to Social Problems from the Bottom Up: Successful Social Movements. NY: Allyn and Bacon.

Huisman, Kimberly. “Developing a Sociological Imagination by Doing Sociology: A Methods-based Service-learning Course on Women and Immigration.” Teaching Sociology (38)2:106-118.

Johnson, Brett. 2005. “Overcoming ‘Doom and Gloom’: Empowering Students in Courses on Social Problems, Injustice, and Inequality.” Teaching Sociology 33(1):44-58.

Korgen, Kathleen, Shelley White, and Jonathan White. 2014. Sociologists in Action, Second Edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Lee, Albert McClung. 1976. “Sociology For Whom? Presidential Address” The American Sociological Review, Volume 41, Number 6.

Lenski, G. 1996. Rethinking the introductory course. Teaching Sociology, 10(2), 153–68.

Lewis, Tammy L. 2004. “Service Learning for Social Change? Lessons from a Liberal Arts College.” Teaching Sociology 32(1):94-108.

Lewntin, Richard. et. al. 1996. The Cold War & the University: Toward an Intellectual History of the Postwar Years. New York: The New Press.

Loeske, Donileen. 2003. Thinking About Social Problems. 2ed. New York: Routledge.

Lynd, Robert. 1939. Knowledge for What? The Place of Social Science in American Culture. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

Morton, Mavis, Corey Dolgon, James Pennell and Timothy Maher. 2011. Civic Engagement and Public Sociology: Two "Movements" in Search of a Mission. Journal of Applied Social Sciences, Vol. 6 Issue 1.

Nyden, Philip; Leslie Hossfield, and Gwendolyn Nyden. 2012. Public Sociology: Research, Action, and Change. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.

Saltmarsh, John and Edward Zlotkowski. 2011. Higher Education and Democracy: Essays on Service-Learning and Civic Engagement. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Sandy, Marie. 2013. Tracing the Liberal Arts Traditions in Support of Service-learning and Public-engaged Scholarship in the Humanities. Humanity & Society. Volume 37, Issue 4.

Schwartz, Michael & R. Tyson Smith. 2010. Beyond the Core: The Hot Topic(al) Alternative to the Survey-Based Introduction to Sociology Course. The American Sociologist 41:249–276.

Simpson, Christopher. 1999. Universities and Empire: Money and Politics in the Social Sciences during the Cold War. New York: The New Press.

Trevino, Javier. 2012. “The Challenge of Service Sociology.” Social Problems. Volume 59, Issue 1.

Tuchman, Gaye. 2009. Wannabe U: Inside the Corporate University. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Wolf, R. (1996). Review of ‘thinking sociologically, an introduction to the discipline’. Teaching Sociology, 24(4), 407