Contemporary American Society


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*Invited Resource* What kind of country do we live in? What does it even mean to talk about a “kind” of country? We all know what it means to ask of a strange creature “what kind of animal is this?” But it is less clear how to ask the same question of a society. The question is muddied further by the fact that societies can change. A leopard can’t change its spots. But a society can become more or less productive in the organization of its economy, more or less equal in its distribution of opportunity, more or less democratic. This course provides an extended answer to the question of what kind of a country the United States is. It also explores the implications of that answer for understanding, and making progress in solving, some of the social problems that confront America today. Our discussion revolves around five key values that most Americans believe our society should realize: 1. Freedom: the idea, commonly thought to be the most essential to the “American creed,” that people should be able to live their lives, to the greatest degree possible, as they wish. This means people should be free from coercive restrictions imposed by others and, as much as possible, have the capacity to put their life plans into effect. 2. Prosperity: the idea that an economy should generate a high standard of living for most people, not just a small privileged elite. 3. Economic efficiency: the idea that the economy should generate...


Resource Type(s):
Erik Olin Wright, University of Wisconsin, Madison 
Date Published:
Subject Area:
Introduction to Sociology/Social Problems 
Class Level:
Class Size:

Usage Notes:

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This course provides a chance for students to delve into social problems in the United States at a deeper level than generally possible in Introduction to Sociology. It provides an opportunity for students to strengthen their understanding of key sociological concepts by applying them to the specific context of contemporary...

Learning Goals and Assessments:

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Goal 1:
Articulate core American values and offer evidence of how beliefs in cultural values are supported or obstructed by social institutions. Discuss key disagreements about American values.
Assessment 1:
Students’ comments in class discussions, film journals, and responses to exams will demonstrate knowledge of American values such as freedom, prosperity, economic efficiency, fairness and democracy.
Goal 2:
Illustrate how human activity produces social rules, which are enforced, often inconsistently, and linked to power. Explain that the central task of sociology is to grasp how rules generate their effects and how rule contradictions can result in change.
Assessment 2:
Student’s comments in class discussions, film journals, and responses on exams will describe the construction and enforcement of social rules, as well as provide evidence of their inconsistencies and contradictions.
Goal 3:
Analyze the social problems that arise in the disjuncture between America’s values and actual social conditions, and evaluate alternative responses to those problems.
Assessment 3:
Student’s comments in class discussions, film journals, and responses on exams will analyze American social problems as the disjuncture between expressed values and existing social rules. They will evaluate alternative responses to social problems.

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Soc125 syllabus EOW TRAILS.docx