In my discussion sections for Contemporary Sociological Theory, we recently reviewed early structuralism and the work of Ferdinand de Sassure and Claude Levi-Strauss. The students had already been over this content in lecture with the course instructor, Andy Szasz, so my task was to give them an opportunity to review the material, ask questions about things that confused them, and practice using the key concepts. As I’ve been doing much of this quarter, I used video clips submitted by my students as part of their section assignment to accomplish all of these goals.
I should note a few things. The week before we had already done an in-depth review of Sassure, focusing in particular on his concepts of the “signifier” and the “signified.” We had used this cartoon, also submitted by a student,to distinguish between the two (I pointed out that the signifier of the Cherokee language is visible in the cartoon, but because none of us speak Cherokee, we could not understand the signified, or meaning, of that text). We discussed how other theorists later used Sassure’s work in linguistics as the basis for a body of theory that places great emphasis on the cultural structures (rules/norms/patterns…) that shape social life. We discussed how the language you learn as a child depends on what culture (or cultures) in which you grow up. Then we reviewed how other aspects of our lives are also shaped by larger cultural “structures” over which individuals usually have little control.
After watching the video below, the students divided into small groups and worked through the Sassure section of the day’s worksheet, which tasked them with writing down sentences about the video that used key words/concepts from the reading. They also had to find a quote from the reading that applied to the video. I got the idea for using this video from The Sociological Cinema.
As it turned out, many of the students had a hard time applying Sassure to the video. I think adding song and movement to regular speech adds a lot of layers of complexity (not present in the cartoon we used the week before) that made the clip harder to analyze. Some of the students got a bit confused when the conversation veered towards whether the child’s babbling speech is the signifier (in which case the signified is unknown to the audience because he has not yet mastered English) or whether his entire performance is the signifier (in which case the signified could be seen as successfully conveying the act of rapping). Another student was stumped on whether or not the child had a specific meaning/signified he was trying, but failing, to convey. These were all good questions that some of the students were able to follow and respond to, but other students got increasingly confused as the conversation went on. If I use this clip again I’ll have to think about how to better support the discussion.
Next, we worked on Levi-Strauss’s theory of kinship rules as an example of another kind of cultural structure that shapes people’s lives and social interactions. I showed the video below and had the students fill out the relevant section of the day’s worksheet. The video shows an actor entering into a scene unknown to him. He has been dressed up to look like an old man but otherwise has no information about his character nor about the characters played by the other actors. The other actors have all been given a loose script to work with ahead of time. Because the Sassure conversation took longer than I was expecting, we had less time to discuss this video, but I think analyzing it through Levi-Strauss’s work was a fairly straightforward experience for most of the students.