Social Inequality and Film
Sociology 367-010 and 367-080
Tuesdays 3:30-6:45
Thursdays 3:30-4:45

Elizabeth Higginbotham
Department of Sociology, Smith Room 316
Office Hours: Tuesdays and Thursday from 1:30-3:00 and by appointment

This page was revised on April 30, 2002.

Instructor Information

As a sociologist, I am very interested in issues of social  inequality. Much of my own research explores educational and  employment issues for women.  The media often shapes how we think about ourselves and the social world we live in.  This course represents some new learning for me, but it is a unique opportunity to explore social stratification and the messages we receive about it.

Course Prerequisites
A social science background is a prerequisite for this course.  We will address issue of social class, gender, race and sexuality from a sociological perspective.
Course Description

We watch movies all the time.  Today’s technology enables people to enjoy the products of major motion picture studios and independent film makers in their home whenever they desire.  These films are important in shaping our understanding of history and contemporary social issues, including the nature of social inequality.  This course offers an opportunity to learn a sociological framework for examining key dimensions of social inequality.  You will employ these dimensions to think about your own life.  To help illuminate key issues and themes, we will look at films.  We can contrast the empirical research and autobiographical treatments with the depictions of issues in films.  There are sociological understandings of race, but also films shape our thinking about racial groups and the meaning of membership.  The same with social class divisions, gender, sexuality, mobility, and other issues in social stratification.  We will look at films with an eye on the depiction of these issues.  We can also think about the impact of such films on our own thinking about our social location and expectations.

A goal of the course is to help you develop an understanding and a language for the dimensions of social stratification.  In the end, you will be more aware of the role of these dimensions in your own life and how these dimensions might be depicted in the popular culture.  We should all be more critical thinkers not only of popular culture, but our everyday assumptions about our own lives.
There are several books required for the class.
Dalton Conley, Honky (2000) Vintage.
Lorraine Delia Kenny, Daughters of Suburbia: Growing Up White, Middle Class and Female  (2000), Rutgers University Press
bell hooks, Where We Stand: Class Matters  (2000) Routledge.
Walter Mosley, Devil in a Blue Dress  (1990) Pocket Book.
Lynn Weber, Understanding Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality  (2000), McGraw Hill.


Course Requirements

All students are expected to attend classes and film screenings.  Students should complete the  readings and be ready to discuss the material in class.  There are often issues for discussion, but you are also free to bring up other matters that the readings and films suggest for you.  There are assignments that should be turned in on time.  Attendance will be taken and unexcused absences will result in a lower grade.
Course Policies

As a class participant you are expected to be prepared by doing the reading and writing assignments, speaking thoughtfully and listening to other seminar members.  Also written assignments are due on time.  Students will lose points for assignments that are over one week late.  Students are expected to adhere to university policy on honesty. Regular attendance and active participation in class sessions is essential for your learning and the success of the class.  After two absences, a medical excuse is required, otherwise a student will lose grade points.

When you work with your genre groups, you should be a responsible participant, doing your fair share, meeting group deadlines, and also listening respectfully to other group members.

Ground Rules for Participation


Grading, Evaluation Policies and Procedures

You will have four types of assignments during the course.  Reaction papers, critical autobiography, take home examination, and genre reports, which will be a group report.  You will earn points for these products.

Reaction papers  During the course of the semester you have to write six reaction papers to a film or a pair or set of films.  For example, many films address mobility, but perhaps in different ways.  These reaction papers will include detailed analysis of the treatment of class, race, gender and sexuality in the film/films under consideration.  For example you might want to contrast “In This Our Life” and “Devil in a Blue Dress,” since they are both looking at issues prior to the Civil Rights movement.  Yet are very different in their focus and treatment of race, gender and sexuality.  There will be suggestions for questions to help guide your assignments.  The papers should be 2-3 pages.  You will get points for the depth of treatment.  These reaction papers can help you think about the critical autobiography.  The maximum you can earn in this category is 30 points.

Critical autobiography  In the course we are reading two memoirs, where writers critically examine their own lives.  In her text, Lynn Weber talks frankly about the development of her own social awareness.  And finally, Lorraine Kenny’s study is an autobiographical ethnography or what she call an autoethnography.  These texts are models for a critical autobiographical piece that you will write.  You are to write about your awareness and understanding of your social location.  Obviously where you live will play a role in this writing and you are free to focus on the role of key films or other events in shaping your expectations and understanding of your own life.  You have to address race, ethnicity, social class, gender, sexuality, religion, language, and any other critical dimension you think is important.  Be sure to address both privilege and disadvantage.  You might want to keep a journal to document issues as you read Weber, Conley, hooks, Mosley and Kenny.  You can also use the reaction paper exercises to push your thinking about your unique set of privileges and disadvantages as well as important events in your life.  An educational chronology is due on March 5, this is one stage in writing the final document.  You can shape the narrative as you desire.  Outlines or drafts are due on April 25.  The final product is due on May 14 and you can earn a maximum of 40 points.

Examination  There will be a take home examination on the sociological content of the course.  You are expected to master the sociological language and perspective.  Lecture notes and readings are critical for mastering this material.  You can earn a maximum of 20 points on this paper.

Genre Reports To give you an opportunity to work in small groups and explore a theme or movie type, you are to break up into interest/area groups and look at dimensions of inequality in the movies you identify.  We will talk about these issues and you can look at additional films or branch out from the films we watch in class.  This exercise should be a fun part of the class and given that we have very different reactions to films, these small groups provide you an opportunity to talk with others and further explore your own social location and how it shapes your views of the media and your environment.  You can also use this as an opportunity to glance at the scholarship on film.  Your group can earn 10 points on these oral group reports that will be given on May 9 and May 14.


February 5
Overview of course and discussion of syllabus, and small group exercise.  A social system approach to inequality.  Why look at films?  What is popular culture?
Film: “The Celluloid Closet” (1995), documentary film directed by Bob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (102 minutes).  Morris Library VHS 5543.

February 7
Critical Dimensions of Social Inequality
Readings: Lynn Weber, Understanding Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality, Introduction and Chapter 1, pp. 1-30.
The contested nature of social inequality.  Building a framework for an intersectional analysis.
Discussion:  What do you learn from films about the value of people of different races, genders, and social class positions?  How might films shape our expectations for our own lives?
Assignment # 1:  Reflection on Favorite Films due.

February 12
The Legacy of Social Inequality in the U.S. and Representation in Films
Readings: Lynn Weber, Understanding Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality, Chapters 2 and 3, pp. 31-72.
Film: “In This Our Life” (1942), feature film directed by John Huston (97 minutes).  Morris Library VHS 3095.

February 14
Understanding the Changes in the Racial Order in the Post War Era
Reading: Lynn Weber, Understanding Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality, Chapters 4-5, pp. 73-109 and begin Walter Mosley, Devil in a Blue Dress,
How does Weber’s approach push you to rethink the history of the U.S. that you have been taught?

February 19
Documenting Racial Border and Barriers: The Book and the Movie
Reading: Walter Mosley, Devil in a Blue Dress.
Film: “Devil in a Blue Dress” (1995) feature film directed by Carl Franklin (102 minutes).  Morris Library Video Disk 129.
We will continue to discuss Chapters 4-5 in Weber’s Understanding Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality,
Issues for Class Discussion:
Following the model Weber uses to describe Margaret Welch, describe the social location of Easy Rawlins.  How might Easy Rawlins see the world?

February 21
The Complexities of an Intersectional Analysis
Reading: Lynn Weber, Understanding Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality, Chapters 6-7, pp. 111-131.
Issues for Class Discussion:
Think about the dimensions of inequality as they related to the book.  How are the lives of the characters’ in Devil in a Blue Dress shaped by their race, gender, social class, and sexuality in post World War II California?  What do you see as the challenge of developing a film from this book?  Identify strengths of each medium?  What did you learn about inequality from the book?  What are the major lessons for you from the film?
How are Theo Wilson’s and Lynn Johnson’s lives different from Easy Rawlins’?  Consider the role of history and changes in the meaning of racial group membership, gender expectations, social class membership, and thinking about sexuality.

February 26
History: Our Past and How We Remember It?
Reading: Lynn Weber, Understanding Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality. Chapters 8-10, pp. 132-182.
Film: “Matewan” (1987) independent feature film directed by John Sayles (132 minutes).  Morris Library VHS 3188.
This film presents a conflict between a union and a coal company in a small West Virginia community in 1920.  We can examine a picture of class conflict and how people build bridges across race and ethnicity.
Issues for Class Discussion:
Who is telling this story?  Who are the insiders and outsiders in the coal mining community?  How are those boundaries constructed?  In the struggle between the union and the company, what roles do different community members play?  Why do people form different alliances?  Who are the men who worked for the Baldwin company?  What does gender and race/ethnicity mean in this film?  What are the options for the different women in this community?

February 28
Issues for Class Discussion:
What questions does this film raise for you about the economic progress and the conditions necessary for companies to make profits?  Think about major social structural factors and how different individuals shape their lives within the context of a historical moment.  How do race and gender shape experiences for members of the working class?  Does the film help you understand macro and micro social processes of this time?

March 5
Social Class Location and Live Options and Expectations: Exploring the links between major social structures and individual social processes.
Film: “Coming Home,” (1978) Feature film directed by Hal Ashby (127 minutes).  Morris Library VHS 924.
Issues for Class Discussion:
How are key characters’ lives shaped by their race, gender, social class, and sexuality in the 1970s?  Describe the expectations others had for them?  What expectations did they have for themselves?  How does this film challenge your thinking about disability?  What did you know about the Vietnam war?  What does this film suggest about the impact of war on individuals and the nation?
Educational Chronology Due

March 7
Social Mobility: The Myth and the Reality
Reading: bell hooks, Where We Stand: Class Matters, Introduction and Chapters 1-3, pp. 1-49.

March 12
Individual vs. Collective Mobility
Reading: bell hooks, Where We Stand: Class Matters, Chapters 4-13, pp. 50-164.  Also look at Weber’s Chapter 10 again for thinking about social justice.
Film: “Norma Rae” (1979) feature film directed by Martin Ritt (113 minutes).  Morris Library VHS 7693.
What are your reactions to this picture of life in a small textile town?  What is the social stratification of this town?  Action takes place in 1978.  What do you think has been the impact of the 1964 Civil Rights Act?  Why is this the era of major organizing in the textile industry?  How does race, gender, and social class shape people’s lives?  What are people’s options?  What is the relationship between workers and supervisors?  What might be key events or relationships that shape people’s consciousness?

March 14
Group meetings: This class period is devoted to meetings in small groups by interest area or genre.  You should begin to plan for your examination of your area.  Keep the scope small.  Two or three films that illustrate these issues.  Divide up work and think about how you want to share with others.

March 19
Life and Loyalty in the Working Class
Reading: Dalton Conley, Honky, Prologue and Chapters 1-6, pp. xi-77.
Film: “Bastard Out of Carolina” (1996) independent feature film directed by Anjelica Huston (101 minutes).  Morris Library VHS 5205
What are the options of a young unwed mother?  What do you think about the role of family in various individuals lives?  Why do you think the family has little to do with mainstream authorities?  How does this film influence your thinking about the working class in rural communities?

March 21
Urban Working Class: Learning and Thinking about Race and Class
Reading: Dalton Conley, Honky, Chapters 7-Epilogue, pp. 79-227.
Issues for Class Discussion:
How did you come to understand your social class position?  What about how it was linked with race and gender?  What are your reactions to Conley’s telling of his life?  As an adult and a sociologist, do you think Conley sees options that his parents did not see?  What does the book suggest to you about social mobility?

March 26
Racial Progress: The Power of Representation
Film: “Smoke Signals,” (1998) Independent film presentation directed by Chris Eyre (89 minutes). First U.S. film that is developed by Native Americans.
Note: Class begins in Kirkbride 205, but at 4:30 we move to Kirkbride 006.
Issues for Class Discussion:
Where do Native Americans living on the reservation fit within the U.S. social class system?  How is this coming of age film different from others you have seen?  How are these Indians different from others you have seen in major motion pictures?

March 28
Continue discussion of “Smoke Signals,” “Bastard Out of Carolina” and the readings by hooks and Conley to look at impact of race, gender, social class, and sexuality on coming of age in the U.S.

April 2 and April 4 Spring Break
You should have turned in at least three reaction papers by this time.  If not write some during the spring break.

April 9
Social Mobility: The Hollywood Myth
Film: “Working Girl” (1988) feature film directed by Mike Nichols (113 minutes)
Issues for Class Discussion:
What does this film suggest about the American Dream?  What do you think about Tess’ strategies for success?  What are your reactions to the people who are upper and middle class in the film?  What is your thinking about the working-class people in the film?  What does the film suggest in terms of a commentary on social class in the U.S.  After the course readings, what questions about mobility do you bring to the film?  Does the film address your questions?  Does the film capture the diversity of NYC?

April 11
Film: "Working Girl” (1988) feature film directed by Mike Nichols (113 minutes)
Smith Room 140

April 16
Suburban Options: Living the Normal Life
Reading: Kenny, Daughters of Suburbia, Introduction and Chapters 1-4, pp. 1-135.
Exploring the role of our communities in social reproduction and consciousness of inequality.  How is race constructed in your community?
Film: “Ordinary People,” (1980) feature film directed by Robert Redford (123 minutes). Morris Library VHS 3604.
Issues for Class Discussion:
Who is telling the story here?  Who does the director want you to follow? Who do you identify with in this film?  In what way is the community a factor in this film?

April 18
Deconstructing the Suburbs and Thinking about Privilege.
Reading: Kenny, Daughters of Suburbia, Chapters 5 and 6, Conclusion and Epilogue, pp. 136-201
Issues for Class Discussion:
What do people see?  What do people not see?  Why are silences and oversights accepted by others?  What do you think about the conceptions of gender roles in the film and the book?  What are your questions about race, social class, gender, and sexuality  after reading the book and viewing the film?  Do films help us understand privilege?  What questions are not asked by the characters within the film but suggested by the film itself?  What additional questions would you pose for thinking about social class privileges?

Special Event, April 19
An Evening with John Singleton, producer, director and screenwriter of several motion picture films.
7:00 PM, Clayton Hall Auditorium.
Admission: Free UD students, faculty & staff
 $5 general public
Tickets available at UD Box Offices

April 23
Working Class Daughters: Race and Social Class in Shaping Life Options.
Film: "Girl Fight" (2000) independent feature film by Karyn Kusmana
Issues for Class Discussion:
Who is telling the story here?  How does this independent film shift the focus from the majority group?  Following the model Weber uses to describe Margaret Welch, describe the social locations of Diana Guzman and her sometime boyfriend, Adrian?  What is their vision of success?   What race and gender barriers do they face?

April 25
Issues for Class Discussion:
Drafts/Outlines for the critical autobiography due.
Distribute Take Home Examination

April 30
Buddy Films and the Hollywood Path to Success
Film: “Finding Forrester” (2001) Feature film by Gus Van Sant (136 minutes)
Morris Library DVD 443.
Note: Class begins in Kirkbride 205, but at 4:30 we move to Kirkbride 006.
Issues for Class Discussion:
Following the model Weber uses to describe Margaret Welch, describe the social locations of Jamal Wallace and his neighborhood friends?  What does this film suggest about the American Dream?

May 2
Power in the Media: Representations and Messages.
Issues for Class Discussion:
What do “Girl Fight” and “Finding Forrester” have in common?  In what ways are they different?  What does each film see as the problem and the solution?  Who do you identify with in each film?  Why that identification?  What are explicit and subtle messages about mobility and social justice.  What do you think about working-class characters and risk?
Time for Genre Groups
Take Home Examination Due

May 7
Exploring Contemporary Issues.
Film: “Bread and Roses” (2001) Independent film directed by Ken Loach
Morris Library DVD 485.
Note: Class begins in Kirkbride 205, but at 4:30 we move to Kirkbride 006.
Take Home Examination Due
Issues for Class Discussion:
Who is telling the story here?  What are insights about the plight of undocumented workers?  What is the role of the union?  What does gender, race, social class and citizenship status mean in this film?  What rights do most U.S. citizens take for granted?  What are the lessons about privilege?

May 9
Group Reports
Last date to turn in Reaction Papers.
Final Day to Turn in Take Home Examination Due

May 14
Group Reports
Critical Autobiography Due


What kinds of materials will be used during the course? Electronic databases? Electronic Course Reserve? Software? Simulations? Laboratory equipment?
What kinds of instructional technologies will be used?
Offer links to Bookstore, Library (Electronic Reserve)
Study Tips/Learning Resources
How will the student be most successful in the course? What resources are available? Study guides, lecture notes online, on reserve in library? TA? Peer tutors? Study groups? Academic Services Center? Writing Center? Evaluation of online resources? Citation of web resources?
Provide link to Academic Services Center, Writing Center
Student feedback on instruction
Anonymous suggestion box on the web? E-mail? Student feedback at midterm for improvement purposes? End-of-term student feedback? Supplement to departmental student feedback form?