Surgery, Privilege, and the Middle Class… Welcome to Sociology!
One of my favorite classes this year was Introduction to Sociology (which you might know already from my bio). Instead of covering a specific discipline, we learned about a broad range of fascinating sociological issues. However, we still studied each topic comprehensively, which is why we did not use a standard textbook. In its place, we read a total of five books, all written with a sociological perspective in mind. Many involved an ethnographic method of data collection, which means that the authors immersed themselves in the setting they are studying. Here are a few that I really enjoyed.
Challenging Operations: Medical Reform and Resistance in Surgery by Katherine Kellogg
I was pleasantly surprised that we would be reading a book related to the healthcare industry. This book was focused not on medicine itself but rather the consequences of a mandate that surgery residents could only work for eighty hours a week. The author spends two and a half years at a few hospitals, gathering data through interviews and shadowing. She outlines the resistance to this mandate among attendings (senior residents), despite the fact that its purpose is to help both doctors and patients. I think it revealed a lot about hierarchies in general and how they can work to silence those lower in status. In conjunction with this outside reading, our lectures focused on how to analyze organizations, including bureaucracy, organizational fields, and the labor process.
Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School by Shamus Khan
I appreciated the fact that we read a book that discusses privilege at an elite school, especially given our enrollment at an elite school ourselves. The author, a graduate from St. Paul’s himself, returns to the school and examines exactly how students embody privilege. He also explains how privilege has changed from an exclusive understanding of high-end culture to the ability to transcend boundaries of high-end and more “popular” culture. This book served as a foundation for our learnings of cultural capital and its transmission, specifically at schools.
Middle Class Meltdown in America by Kevin Leicht and Scott Fitzgerald
As someone who knows little about economics and things like the stock market, this part of our class was truly eye-opening. This book was specifically designed for undergraduate students and provides data on the causes and consequences of growing middle-class inequality. In class, we studied about theories of inequality and stratification, including racial inequality. This complemented a class I took the next term, another sociology class but on health inequalities. In both, we examined the long-reaching effects of economic inequality among races.
Overall, while all of these books pose deep sociological questions, they were not difficult to read given their ethnographic data, which often included vivid anecdotes, interesting observations, and even some “characters” to follow. Before this class, I seldom had to read non-fiction for academic purposes. These books were a great way to cement our understanding of concepts we learned in class, but with a real-world twist.