Discovering Sociology

From Teaching Sociology 1992. 20: 248-253


Discovering Sociology


Thomas J. Scheff

U. of California, Santa Barbara


There's a difficulty in teaching: when you tell people something, you keep them from ever knowing it. If they find it on their own, they'll know it in a way they never will if you tell them.  

Richard Benson (in Tomkins l990).


This note describes a method of teaching directed toward student initiation and discovery. Its purpose is to build community among students and teachers, to overcome the alienation that characterizes much of higher education. The format of the class shares authority between teacher and students. The content is built around micro-macro linkage, with a strong emphasis, in the first half of the class on social interaction, and in the second, on interchange between groups. The new method seems to have many advantages: it changes the tone of the classroom from one dependent on authority and command by encouraging student initiation. It also increases the speed and depth of learning. It also may help the instructor to integrate roles as teacher and researcher.

The traditional format for the college classroom is the lecture. Closely associated with this format is the use of textbooks (rather than original sources) and examinations (rather than original writing). In this paper I describe an alternative format, built around discussion, original sources, and essay examinations. The philosophy underlying the traditional format has been referred to as the "banking model" (Friere, l970): students accumulate information in their mental banks. Examinations are used to test the amount of information stored.

The alternative described here is based on what has been called the discovery method. I have found that this format works best with small classes (no more than 20 students), but also greatly improves larger ones (21-100). The object is to involve students and to transform them from being pupils (those who carry out orders) to students (those who study). To change a class into a cooperative quest for learning, it also helps to use techniques that encourage community by increasing student participation and empowerment.

My approach is oriented toward problem-solving rather than memorization. It encourages students to use part/whole thinking, to see problems in terms of the relationships between parts and wholes (Scheff l990). I assume that my readers are aware already of the grave disadvantages of the lecture format. Rather than reviewing them, I outline some of the features of the new format, and its advantages. (For a summary comparison of the features of the alternative and traditional formats, see Table 1.)

This note builds upon a tradition of alternative teaching methods in sociology and social science as a whole. In their analysis of teaching methods, Goldsmid and Wilson (l980) devote most of their attention to lecturing, but also develop some useful ideas about discussion and about discovery. Their discussion of the potentially close relationship between research and teaching (p. 32) is anticipated my treatment of this issue. This book is also valuable because of its careful review of the earlier literature on teaching sociology.

Bateman's (l990) advocacy of inquiry in teaching is entirely concerned with the discovery method. It is a valuable guide for those beginning to teach in this way, since it is built around interpretations of concrete examples of teaching techniques and situations. Katz and Henry (l988) also have some helpful hints, although most of their discussion is much too abstract to be helpful.

Although my approach depends upon earlier efforts, it also modifies and extends them. Virtually all of Goldsmid and Wilson's (l980), Katz and Henry's, and Bateman's (l990) attention is devoted to the cognitive aspects of teaching, with little discussion of emotions or of community. Because emotion is closely linked to student motivation, community, and the building of trust, I give it equal standing with intellectual matters. In particular, I undo the teacher dominated structure of the classroom.

The nearest analogy to my approach is to be found in the Montessori method, even though this method has never been applied to higher education. Montessori teaching is based on educational toys such as Cuisinnaire rods, puzzles, maps, and musical instruments. Children learn at their own pace by self-initiated play with this equipment. They spend most of their time at play or sitting around tables. The teacher, sitting at her or his own desk, does not dominate the class, but serves instead as a resource or coach. Typically, as they become familiar with the equipment, students ask the teachers questions which enable them to use it, solving problems only as they are raised by the students. My method of teaching can be seen as a college-level parallel to the Montessori approach.

The specific format outlined here involves virtually no lecture. Even when students ask pointblank questions, I sometimes avoid or defer answering. One technique is to ask the class for opinions; another is to request a show of hands. Although some students find my reticence frustrating, it builds dramatic tension in the class: learning becomes something of a quest.

In this format, the relationship between the concrete and the abstract becomes crucial. Concrete episodes and dialogues are used analogously to the educational toys in the Montessori method. I begin class by introducing some specific problem: the best way of ending a quarrel with their roommate or (another popular topic) asking for a date. I avoid introducing abstract concepts until after considerable discussion of concrete situations to which they might apply.

The next step is to provide a concrete example, in the form of a situation that serves as a problem to solve. In the early stages of the class I provide the examples myself. Later, when some understanding and trust have developed, students provide them. Here are the items from an initial handout in a class on the sociology of conflict:


1. Dating: telephone exchange between friends of two year's standing (Harrington, l990):


Cathy: I was just calling to see if you wanted to go out sometime.


John: You mean like on a date?


Cathy: Yea, like on a date! What'd you THINK I was talking about?

2. Household tasks: a 20-year-old college student asks for help from her aunt (Labov and Fanshel l977, p. 197):

Excerpt 2

2.6 [a] R.: I said t’her (breath) w-one time—I asked her—I said


[b] "Wellyouknow, wdy’mind takin’ thedustrag an’justdust

around ?"

2.7 R.: Sh’s’s, "Oh-I-I—it looks clean to me,"...

2.8 [a] R.: An’ then I went like this.

[b] an’ I said to her, "That looks clean t’you?"

(It appears that at this point, Rhoda had drawn her finger across a dusty surface and thrust her

dusty finger into Editha’s face)

2.9 [a] R.: And she sort of....I d’no-sh’sort of gave me a funny

look as if I—hurt her in some way,

[b] and I mean I didn’ mean to, I didn’ yell and scream.

[c] All I did to her was that "That looks clean to you?"....


3. War: Telegram from Czar Nicolas of Russia to the Kaiser of Germany, August l914 (Scheff 1994):

Am glad you are back. In this most serious moment, I appeal to you

to help me. An ignoble war has been declared on a weak country. The

indignation in Russia shared fully by me is enormous. I foresee that

very soon I shall be overwhelmed by the pressure brought upon me

and be forced to take extreme measures which will lead to war. To try

and avoid such a calamity as a European war, I beg you in the name

of our old friendship to do what you can to stop your allies from going

too far.

The students respond easily to the first two items. Initially, I allow them to ignore the third item, since it much more subtle and complex than the other two items. After some discussion, I suggest role-playing all three scenes (I have students improvise responses by the aunt and by the Kaiser).

Students discover quickly that considerable deception is involved in the first two items, and some self-deception, that the parties are not "leveling" with each other or with themselves. Then they are able to apply this insight to the Czar's telegram: they note the passive voice, denial of responsibility, and the veiled threat.

In all three situations one's own responsibility for a quarrel is denied; the entire blame is projected on to others. This pattern allows me to invoke Durkheim's conception of social facts; he proposed that they are patterns of behavior experienced by participants as exterior and constraining. Both sides' denial of responsibility suggests they are experiencing a conflict as a social fact; they are seeing their quarrel as exterior and constraining.

Most of the students learn from role-playing dialogues that they themselves are involved in interminable quarrels with parents, siblings, lovers, or roommates. Until they participated in class exercises, however, most of them failed to see their own contributions to such stalemates; they blamed the other participants, and were unaware of their own roles.

When the students become aware of the relevance of the class to their own lives, I introduce Durkheim. After they have gained direct familiarity with exteriority and constraint at the interpersonal level, I introduce instances at the societal level; the telegram from the Czar is one example. Students then can note the same patterns of faulty communication and self-deception in leaders of nations that they have observed in their own families. I reserve most of the macro problems for the latter half of the class, because collective dynamics are not only more complex than the interpersonal, but also are more distant from the students' experience.

Teaching on the basis of concrete, visible texts transforms the classroom. Discussion becomes a cooperative event because the same data is equally available to all of us. In order to give students opportunity to observe and analyze on their own, I am careful not to offer my comments before the students have had their turn. After several viewpoints have been established, I offer mine.

This format empowers students; they can appreciate the fit of an interpretation, or they can criticize it as they choose. In this context, students often make brilliant comments. Especially in larger classes, usually at least one student approaches the problem in a novel way, or finds errors or omissions in my own interpretation.

This approach helps integrate my role as teacher and as researcher. Because the problems I present to my classes are usually those on which I am currently working, the more active and assertive students function almost as colleagues. Teaching becomes a two-way street; I learn from the students just as they learn from me. In so far as the course material touches on my own research, this approach integrates my research and teaching. In so far as the course material covers the discipline of sociology, the students, who do not share the assumptions on which sociologists base their work, can function as outside critics, performing a crucial service for the discipline. I return to this issue at the end of the paper.


The usual assignment for my courses is to write one or more original essays on a problem in the field being studied. I usually give students a choice of three or four such problems, but I do not rule out additional problems that they suggest themselves. For example, if the class concerns the sociology of the family, one problem might be the extent of similarities and differences between families by social class, ethnicity or culture, and the possible consequences of such differences. Another problem might be the socialization process in the family -- the transmission of family patterns of gender roles, emotions, or conflict tactics. I give students a wide range of options as to the method they use: interviewing, portrayals in mass media, or analysis of their own family relationships (which I require to be based on verbatim dialogues --all work must be based on close analysis of texts).

Usually I assign two papers, one at midterm and a final. Each paper are from 5 to 8 typed double-spaced pages in length. In addition to the papers themselves, I require a one-page proposal at least two weeks beforehand, stating the problem, the approach, the method, and a preliminary guess of the results. This one-page proposal is important in reaching a meeting of minds about the final paper; without it, students tend to stray from the course contents. It also so helps them focus on an overall structure for the actual paper.

The class I have taught most frequently is Introduction to Social Psychology. Over the years I have learned that introducing public, collective issues is accomplished best by starting with personal problems (Mills l959). Students seem to grasp ideas most quickly if problems are presented in the form of dialogue concerning gender roles, family systems, cooperation and conflict between nations, and so on.

The concepts that are central to the class are social interaction, social facts, solidarity, and alienation. We begin with concrete examples and move from the concrete to the abstract. Students learn to use cues in discourse in order to distinguish between solidary and alienated relationships. For example, they are taught to note the extent to which plural, as compared to singular pronouns are used: we or us vs. I and you. Exclusive use of I and you often marks isolated relationships; exclusive use of we and us, engulfed relationships. Solidary relationships show balance between the two forms (Scheff and Retzinger, l991).

Students note that participants who are involved in isolated or engulfed relationships usually experience them as exterior and constraining. They also note that participants who acknowledge their own share of responsibility experience such as relationships as solidary. These observations once again introduce them to the Durkheimian idea that a recurring interaction can be seen as a small part of a social fact -- that is, a social institution.

As sources of concrete examples, we use students' own dialogue with peers or with family, mass media (novels and films), and newspaper and magazine accounts. Most class time is spent in analyzing concrete episodes, word by word, second by second. For example, volunteers might enact a scene from a novel or a film, from a meeting between national leaders, or from a scene in their own family.

Students respond especially strongly to filmed novels such as Room with a View (Forster [l908] l988). I use this work because it is rich with concrete manifestations of social class, solidarity, alienation, and family systems, that can be used as objective indicators. Reading the novel gives students the big picture, which includes the mass of social and biographical details that ground the characters' personalities, and their interpersonal relationships as well. Seeing the film or videotape of the novel, on the other hand, allows them to grasp the construction of particular episodes, by references to the dense cloud of details involving setting and nonverbal gestures. Commercially available videos are the most useful because they allow hands-on access to episodes that students use for their papers.

Role-playing of these scripts usually begins with reenactments but often progresses to "hypotheticals", how the scene could have taken place, but did not. The comparison between the actual episode and the hypothetical one helps students to understand social action in terms of general concepts. That is, students can understand an incident in context because they have direct access to the surrounding events. Given this type of data, they are free to apply both hypotheticals and what Mannheim called the "prospective-retrospective method of understanding." The two methods together make use of "thick description" of everything that happened before, during, and after an episode (Scheff, l990).

Using this approach, the teacher can retire from the role of boss to the role of coach or resource. The attempt to understand the structure and process of concrete episodes empowers students to the point that many of them take control of their own learning process.

Class Format

The first class meeting is organized so that students can gain a strong sense of the form and content of the class. This element is important, because many students are unwilling to experiment. Many are so anxious about their grades that they lock themselves into the traditional format; these students are miserable when they are not taking notes. It is important that students be allowed to select themselves into or out of the class.

Most of my classes, including the first meeting, begin immediately with discussion. I first circulate a handout containing several verbatim texts relevant to the content of the class. First I ask for volunteers to read each text aloud; then I ask for interpretations. Most of the first meeting is taken up with discussion. Toward the end of the class I circulate the syllabus, which specifies the assignments, concepts, methods, and content of the typical class: exercises, demonstrations, and discussion. Then I lead a discussion about the syllabus, basing it largely on students' questions.

The discovery method depends upon cooperation between teacher and students, and among students. To facilitate cooperation, I believe it is necessary to depart from the traditional architecture of the classroom. All of my classes meet in rooms with movable chairs, so that we can sit in a circle (in a small class) or in concentric circles (in a larger class). Discussion is facilitated by including the teacher in the circle and having students seated so that they can make eye contact. The concentric circles in a large class work best if the students in the inner circle sit on the floor, and if the teacher sits with them. The presence of the teacher within the circle rather than outside of it, and seated rather than standing, seems to symbolize to the students that they are empowered. This seating format helps build a sense of community in the class, by allowing continuous eye contact, and by sharply differentiating this class from a traditional one.

Class begins with a check-in: in small classes, all students state their name and make some comment, perhaps some recent personal experience, or what they would like to do in this class meeting. In large classes, it is not possible for everyone to check in, so I call for several volunteers. Even if only four or five students speak, the mood becomes more participatory.

The next step is to select a facilitator for the meeting; at least one student always volunteers. If more than one offers to serve, the others are scheduled to chair subsequent meetings. A student facilitator helps build a sense of community and of student-initiated effort. It also relieves the teacher of the burdensome tasks of directing traffic and giving orders. I seem to think much more clearly and to be more observant when I am acting as coach rather than directing the class.

In the next step, the student facilitator requests items for the agenda. I let students make suggestions first. If anything I consider necessary is omitted, I suggest it. The class then orders the agenda. The facilitator also may appoint a timekeeper to help the class follow the agenda. The class proceeds though the items in the agenda; usually they finish but sometimes they hold items over until the next meeting.

Class ends with checkout, in which students first repeat their names, then comment on the meeting. Usually the comments are appreciative or critical of particular events. Especially after midterm grades, conflicts between students and teacher or among students are voiced. At times students also suggest agenda items for the next meeting. Checkout seems to be an important part of the format; allowing students to register their sense of the class appears to lead to intellectual integration and high morale.

I use an approach to the reading and writing assignments that encourages participation and initiation by students. I make a standing assignment that is to be handed in at the beginning of each class. A typical assignment is submit a brief (four-line) verbatim dialogue relevant to the content of the class, either from their own lives or from some other source. The second assignment is to ask a question or make a comment about one of the readings. I require that the question or comment be specific enough to , show familiarity with the reading.

From the second to the eighth week of the quarter the assignment alternates between dialogue and readings. Reviewing these assignments gives me an overview of the issues as the students experience them. Usually I select several of these issues for discussion in the class following the one in which they were submitted. Often the students who raised these questions seemed to be pleased that their concerns were noticed.

Before raising my own questions about a dialogue or giving my own answer to a question, I usually call on class members for responses. Before offering my own opinion, I wait until several approaches have been established by students. Even after the climate of opinion in the class is clear, I may defer offering my own views. Instead I may raise new questions or hint at directions that might be taken. This approach encourages both speculation and accumulation of factual details, but it most rewards balance between the two.

Although most students appreciate the new format, there are always dissidents. Several typical complaints are usually voiced during class or my office hours, and/or more frequently and clearly in anonymous student evaluations that students submit during the last class meeting. First and foremost, a sizable minority of students complain that although they gained considerable knowledge and insight, they would have gained more if the lecturer had provided more structure. More specifically, many of these students want more discussion of the reading assignments. I receive surprisingly few complaints, however, about the difficulty of the readings, given that they are all original sources rather than textbooks.

Another frequent complaint is that the class took too much study time and that they wished the class would have been longer. Frequently accompanying this complaint is the comment that the grades on their papers were not proportional to the amount of effort invested. Finally, a few students usually indicate that they felt shortchanged with regard to the societal part of the class, because most of the discussion was devoted to social interaction.


Even the most critical of the students, however acknowledge that the class was helpful. Over the course of the entire term, the amount of resentment and tension is sharply reduced compared to the traditional format. Even so, there are usually a few students who express anger and resentment (for example, about grades and about the amount of work required) for most of the term.

This discussion gives only a bare outline of the new method and its results. Many of the features are difficult to describe in a brief paper. For readers interested in seeing the approach in action, two videotapes are available on request, at cost . One is a small three-hour graduate seminar, a small class; he other is an undergraduate class of about 80 students, lasting one hour and 15 minutes. Both videotapes reveal elements that I have been unable to convey in this paper, particularly the intensity of student involvement and emotion.


The discovery method brings a renewed interest and fire to  learning for both students and teachers. It brings a dynamic to the classroom which has implications for the state of knowledge. After teaching in this way, one understands that introducing beginners to sociology is a challenge that is somewhat different than addressing one's fellow sociologists. Beginners do not accept the large body of taken-for-granted assumptions about theory, method, and content that are shared by professionals. They raise interesting and perhaps vital questions about these assumptions, if they are allowed to do so. The traditional teaching format submerges these questions, but the discovery method allows them to surface. Perhaps this kind of teaching could help revitalize our discipline.







Bateman, Walter. l990. Open to Question: The Art of Teaching and Learning by Inquiry. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Forster, E. M. l908. Room with a View. New York: Bantam ([l908] l988).

Freire, Paolo. l970. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Herder and Herder.

Goldsmid, Charles and Everett Wilson. l980. Passing on Sociology: the Teaching of a Discipline. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Harrington. C. Lee. l990. "Emotion Talk: The Sequential Organization of Shame Talk." Unpublished Ph D. dissertation, U. of California, Santa Barbara.

Henry, Joseph and Mildred Henry. l988. Turning Professors into Teachers. New York: Macmillan.

Labov, William and David Fanshel. l977. Therapeutic Discourse. New York: Academic Press.

Mills, C. Wright. l959. The Sociological Imagination. New York: Oxford U. Press.

Scheff, Thomas J. l990. Microsociology. Chicago: U. of Chicago Press.

_______________1994. Bloody Revenge: Nationalism, War and Emotion. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press.

Scheff, Thomas J. and Suzanne M. Retzinger. l991. Emotion and Violence: Shame and Rage in Destructive Quarrels. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books

Tomkins, Calvin. l990. "Profile of Richard Benson." New Yorker (Dec. l7): 48-52.




Table l. Comparison of Teaching Styles




Discovery Style Traditional Style


Classroom Arrangement Chairs in Teacher at head of circle (or concentric circles in a class

large class) with teacher seated inside (one of the) circle(s).

Grading Base Project (original Examination

paper, for example).


Substantive Focus Questions Answers (facts and (Actual problems) theories)


Sources Originals Textbooks


Class format Discussion Lecture


Chair Rotating among students Teacher


Teacher's role Resource Authority


Setting agenda Share with Teacher alone



Reading rate Fast (pattern Slow, linear



Start class Student check-in Teacher


End class Student check-out Teacher