Not so long ago, I was looking for an interesting way to teach sociological theories to students. While I looked over all the ideas, suggestions, and guides I could find, I kept wanting to try something new that I could make my own and transplant from course to course since I rarely teach the required theory course at my university. During this time, a couple friends I admire were having (still are) tremendous success engaging the sociology of Hip Hop to cover a wide variety of subjects with their students, and I kept thinking back to a professor who often started courses by playing music to (as she said, and seemed to work) get the students engaged. At the same time, I remembered another professor who used heavy metal music (with lyrics that are often hard to understand if one is new to the genre) to teach listening skills and poetic techniques (i.e., some heavy metal lyrics are incredibly intricate poems so students had to learn to hear them and then take them apart analytically).
From the combination of these observations, I began to wonder about ways I could use music to introduce students to sociological theories. At the time, I was about to teach the required theory course at my university for the first time, and I already had theory sections built into my other courses. Rather than change everything at once, I decided to do a little pedagogical experiment in the required theory course wherein each sociological theory we covered would be accompanied by a Broadway musical that demonstrated elements of the theory. Students would be required to read the theories, discuss them in class, and then apply them to excerpts from the musicals, and I would see how this integration of musical offerings and theory worked in practice. By the end of the course, via informal and formal student impressions and evaluations, I realized that this tactic worked rather well, gave students a concrete object they could attach the complexity of theories to in a practical manner, and facilitated some rather enjoyable classroom discussions.
For readers interested in replicating or considering the approach, the process unfolded in four steps with each new theory introduced. First, I would have students read the text itself, and in class we would discuss both the theory, the background of the theorist, and ways people have used this theory since. Then, we would spend the next class collaboratively coming up with ways we could use this theory in our own lives, which we would supplement with excerpts from musicals (and an overview of the entire musical). When we covered Symbolic Interactionism and Dramaturgy, for example, students read Mead and Goffman and then we linked their ideas to Billy Elliott’s socialization (via props, rituals, back and front stage performances, emotion management, and interpretive processes) as a male ballet dancer in a lower-working class, masculine-focused familial and economic context (I initially chose this because I had a professor who used the movie version of Billy Elliott for this purpose in a Symbolic Interaction course). In this way, each theory covered was linked to a musical story students could use to analyze and (as one put it) “play with” sociological concepts and arguments.
For the purposes of the course and theory offerings in other courses to date, I have used many offerings from musicals for theory application. As such, I offer a selected few of them for anyone interested in considering, thinking about, or discussing this practice:
- Structural Functionalism = The Lion King and especially the “Circle of Life” idea of balance and function promoted throughout the story.
- Conflict Theory = Sweeney Todd and especially the “Little Priest” critique of Capitalism.
- Weber’s Protestant Ethic = The Book of Mormon and especially the “I believe” solo by Elder Price.
- Feminist Theory and Intersectionality = Wicked and especially the “Defying Gravity” conversation between women seeking different paths to freedom and authenticity.
- Queer Theory = Rent and especially the “La Vie Boheme” series of songs focusing on diversity of identity types and categories.
- Post-Structuralism = Kinky Boots and especially the “Everybody say yeah” celebration.
- Black Feminist Thought = The Color Purple and especially the “Hell No” performance.
While I have used many other musicals and musical numbers for similar purposes since, these have been the ones that have worked best to date. Further, I have also begun to incorporate other forms of music in similar ways. This leads me to wonder what are other ways we can use music to teach our students about sociology and about Symbolic Interactionism specifically? If my case to date (as well as others I mentioned above and some pieces on using music in the classroom I’ve read) is accurate, music may provide a powerful tool for helping students connect to theoretical ideas and empirical findings in a wide variety of ways. What are other ways to incorporate musical offerings, Symbolic Interactionist concepts, and sociological instruction?