Stand up/Sit down stucture and agency activity


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This classroom activity quickly illustrates the complex relationship between structure, personal choice, and collective agency by having students stand up or sit down depending on whether they chose to take the class, and would've made the same choice under other circumstances. It takes between 10-30 minutes, works well with 25-300 students, and can easily be referred back to when students need to be reminded of how structure constrains and enables individual choice. It can be expanded to include discussions of social change through collective action (i.e. social movements).


Resource Type(s):
Class Activity 
Tal H Peretz, University of Southern California
Michael A Messner, University of Southern California 
Date Published:
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Usage Notes:

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We have used this activity in large (150 students) introductory classes and in smaller discussion sections (25 students), in courses on sex and gender and on ethnicity and racial conflict, which offer general education and “diversity” credit. It provides a working understanding of a central sociological concept and should be...

Learning Goals and Assessments:

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Goal 1:
Provide students a working understanding of social structure and collective agency; connect these complex and abstract sociological concepts to students’ lives and experiences, encouraging them to view their own lives in historical and social context.
Assessment 1:
As this is a quick and basic in-class activity, student learning is assessed first through visible student understanding and vocal response during in-class activity.
Goal 2:
Illustrate the subtle but powerful ways that structure both constrains and enables individual choice and help students think more critically about individualist views of free will.
Assessment 2:
During future classes, in discussions of other course concepts or social issues, students can be asked to apply the concepts of structure and agency, and describe how each affects the issue, the discussion, or the people involved.
Goal 3:
Illustrate how structure and agency are intertwined: structure shapes group choice and action, which in turn shapes social structure; suggest collaborative group effort as a primary driver of historical change.
Assessment 3:
On exams and in essays, students may be asked to describe how structure is implicated in a particular social issue, how social structures both constrain and enable the actors involved, and how collective action could be used to reshape those structure.

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Peretz and Messner, structure activity.doc
TRAILS structure activity, revision 1.doc