In the first part of your final papers for this class, you’ll describe a phenome
In the first part of your final papers for this class, you’ll describe a phenomenon you want to explain using sociological theory. One of the points of the final paper is to let you explore something you’re curious about in the world. Put differently, a “phenomenon” doesn’t have a strict definition, and can range from a huge class of different things in the world: from individual events and people, to broad social practices and institutions, to historical shifts in our styles of life.So, rather than give you specific guidelines, I instead want to furnish a few tips that distinguish “better” and “worse” ways to describe your phenomenon.
Try to come up with a question.
Instead of just saying “I want to study why people are mean,” try to specify it by phrasing it using words like how, why, and when. So: “Why are people mean to others when they first meet them?” Or instead of “I want to look at American football,” perhaps “Why do football fans dance in such strange ways during games?”
Be specific, or not too specific!
You’ll notice that in the above tip, each of the question-words I added also made the general topic I began with a little more specific: I moved from people being mean “at all times” down to “when they first meet,” and “American football” to “fans at football games doing dances.” This is usually a good thing to do if you find yourself with a really broad or vague topic–as yourself “what about this am I really curious about?”
On the other hand, because this is sociology, it’s usually not a good idea to propose a really specific person or event for your topic. Asking “Why did Kanye West have listening parties prior to the release of Donda?” risks falling back into psychologism. Here, I advise scaling up a bit, and asking “just what is the specific person or event a ‘case of’?” So, for Kanye, something like “What about celebrity culture drives mental illness?” or “Why does music today increasingly emphasize performance and not record sales?”
Provide some empirical detail!
Sociology is fundamentally an empirical science, and while this course doesn’t emphasize data-gathering, we still need enough information about your phenomenon to orient ourselves! This means that your phenomenon draft should include at least one or two citations to reputable empirical sources.6 Through these sources, you should be able to tell us things like: how common or rare is your phenomenon? Who is involved in it? What kind of resources (time, money, effort) does it take? Is it historically new or old?
We depend on this account to make sense of your later analysis and presentation of theory, so it’s a good idea not to skimp on this step! Put differently: I’d read several sources about your phenomenon, try to judge which ones are highest-quality, and then present those; don’t simply cite the first two internet articles you find!7
Pick something you care about!
We’re going to circle back to this phenomenon over the course of the semester, so it’s a good idea to pick something you actually want to know, and not recycle something that you think will be easy. Paradoxically, it can be very hard to do your final paper well if you start with something you’ve learned in another class, or feel very certain about. Remember: sociological theory is often more about getting the question right, or finding an appropriate framework to organize your curiosity, than necessarily finding the universal answer!