sociology is harder than you think

A few weeks ago, I noted that Indiana sociology is one of the stingiest graders in the university. About 30% of our grades are A’s, making us the 10th toughest grader in the university. From internal data, I know sociology gives lower grades than the rest of the College of Arts and Sciences, which gives lower grades than the rest of the university. It also turns out that I’m a GPA Terminator. In my large lecture in social theory, about 10% got any version of an A, with a single unadorned A.

I am not alone. The comments on the original post suggest that at a number of schools sociology tends to be harder than most majors in terms of grades. One commenter noted that sociology might just be graded harder. True. Sociology isn’t nuclear physics, but there some reasons to think that sociology is harder than it looks.

  1. Most sociology programs requires one semester of statistics, which can’t be faked.
  2. You have to take social theory – which is reading hard original texts from authors like Weber, Marx, Durkheim, and so forth. It’s like taking a course in Western civ. at a place like Chicago.
  3. A lot of sociological research is not narrative, like history. Rather, it’s about variables, even when it’s historical.
  4. Sociology instructors expect writing that combines variables/analytic thinking with college level expository writing.

Students are attracted to sociology because it’s accessible and many think it will be easy. Instead, they get this Frankenstein major that requires some math, some philosophy, analytical/deductive thinking, and clear writing. Few students possess all of these skills at once, which is why the grades are lower than in comparable majors.

Adverts: From Black Power/Grad Skool Rulz


Written by fabiorojas

January 5, 2012 at 5:27 am

17 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. I’m not sure I follow this. Isn’t any field as “hard” as we declare it to be? Any prof can set higher standards for an A, assign more reading/writing, or put a class earlier in the morning. Psychology could easily grade as low as physics if they wrote the tests that way. Isn’t a field’s difficulty more a sign of something cultural about the department or the faculty than something intrinsic in the material?



    January 5, 2012 at 5:43 am

  2. @j: The argument is hard relative to other topics. Yes, we can set bars – but why do sociologists award fewer good grades? I think the answer is that lower quality students self select into a major that requires them to be a jack of all trades. In the social sciences, history may require clear writing, philosophy require tough reading, and econ requires statistics. But soc requires them all and few students are up to the task.



    January 5, 2012 at 5:52 am

  3. Again repeating the argument of “j” , isn’t it that “hardness” is institutionalized in the Sociology faculties ?



    January 5, 2012 at 9:19 am

  4. Or perhaps sociology just attracts dumber students.



    January 5, 2012 at 2:23 pm

  5. Sociology’s departmental grade distributions are driven more by non-majors taking service courses than majors, at least on my campus, and I suspect on most. So the major requirements are largely irrelevant. Most grades given are in lower-division service courses that meet distribution requirements. We don’t have campus statistics by department (they could be calculated, but you’d have to do it from a 400-page pdf file listing each course separately), but I don’t think sociology is an especially “tough” grading department here, although neither do we give all A’s or run easy courses. We do get a lot of student who complain that it isn’t fair that there is a lot of work to do in our classes because they need to concentrate their efforts on their “real” classes in engineering or biology or whatever. And another set who complain that they are not used to classes where they have to do a large amount of reading or write a lot of papers. These folks don’t make A’s.

    On my campus, psychology is the low grades unit. They impose strict curves on their lower division courses, so the bottom of the distribution will get Ds and Fs, and the score that is at the bottom goes up during the term, after the people who made the lowest initial grades drop. Imposing a strict curve on points at the end of the term in a system where students can drop through the 8th week of classes (and advisors urge people to drop classes if they are getting low grades) seems to me to be its own kind of malfeasance.

    Going with Fabio’s argument for a bit, it is fair to imagine that just as sociology trips up the people who are not used to writing papers, it also trips up the people who are not used to numbers or thinking analytically.

    But I’ll bet that if the measure was not number of As but number of Fs, you might get a different picture. Do a lot of people fail sociology classes? I’ll bet not. People stick with courses they are failing because they are trying to succeed in a major for which that course is a requirement.So they may stick with chemistry despite failing because they want to be a doctor. But nobody is fantasizing a career in sociology that would keep them in the course despite failing. The only non-drop fails I tend to see are graduating seniors whose only goal is to pass with a D so they can meet their last distribution requirement.



    January 5, 2012 at 2:59 pm

  6. In terms of “hardness,” I find in my own teaching that the objectivity in grading is more important than the inherent difficulty of the material. That is, I might very well give lower grades on intrinsically simple material but where there is a clear right answer than on intrinsically difficult material that is open to multiple interpretations.



    January 5, 2012 at 4:29 pm

  7. I think Fabio’s reasoning is relevant, but I agree with J and Santosh that it doesn’t take us the whole way because once we acknowledge that individual professors, and/or departments, have some upward and/or downward flexibility in their grading standards, we have to ask ourselves why they pick exactly the balance they pick.

    I’d also like more data before I accept that grading in sociology is “moderately hard” as Fabio seems to think. He has succeeded in moving, and spreading out, my prior, which was that grading in sociology is easy, but I still think its quite plausible that grading in sociology is quite easy at many schools.


    Michael Bishop

    January 5, 2012 at 4:30 pm

  8. […] sociology is harder than you think ( […]


  9. A recent study by Corey Koedel ( ) in Education Policy Analysis Archives gives some additional information on grading curves across departments in universities. While the study is about education schools and problems with grades and the lack of sorting that may or may not be occurring for aspiring teachers, he provides data for all colleges across multiple universities.

    For the present discussion, Figure 1 provides the distributional grade curves for Indiana University, University of Miami Ohio and University of Missouri. “Social Science” (which I’m reading as Sociology – maybe I’m wrong here) seems to be in the middle of pack.



    January 5, 2012 at 6:30 pm

  10. AB – social science at IU includes soc but also poli sci, econ, anthro, folklore, history, and a bunch of area studies units.



    January 5, 2012 at 6:35 pm

  11. “Or perhaps sociology just attracts dumber students.”

    The best students in other majors struggle when they have to face social theory in graduate school. Of course, the two explanations aren’t mutually exclusive.



    January 5, 2012 at 6:46 pm

  12. As others have stated, there are related but separable issues: 1) the inherent difficulty of the discipline. I believe that doing sociology well requires the analytical acuity of the “hard sciences” and the holistic vision of the humanities 2) the kinds of level of the bar for high grades in various disciplines Even with a demanding discipline, we have institutional problems with what is expected of undergraduate students at many (but not all) colleges and universities (including high and low ranked departments). In addition to what each of us can do in the departments that we have any influence over, there are institutional reforms that might help: 1) Improving textbooks, especially intro text books. Most intro text books reflect little of what is actually done in sociology. They are generally revisions of functionalist text books of the 50s with chapters on race, gender, class and sexual orientation. Social structure=values, norms and institutions. Instead of sustained intellectual argument there are litanies of definitions. 2) I would expect that there are at most a couple hundred of us who do most departmental reviews. The ASA works with many reviewers who are part of their Departmental Review Group, but needs to reach further to foster more discussion on how to maintain high standards in undergraduate teaching. 3) In too many colleges and universities, sociology departments have become a fall-back major because they are compelled by administrators to keep enrollment up. Department chairs need to discuss how others have dealt with this issue.

    Bill Roy



    January 5, 2012 at 7:13 pm

  13. To pick up on something OW mentioned earlier, the proportion of students who get As is only one criterion for assessing whether a course /department is easy or difficult. We can also look at the proportion who do not get passing grades. Sociology could be an “easy/hard” major, in that it is relatively easy to graduate with a C average but difficult to possess all the skills necessary to consistently get As. Many students looking for an easy major focus on the minimal threshold – what major are they most likely to pass? Sociology does not have explicit or implicit curves, so it may in fact be an “easy” major to pass on most campuses.



    January 5, 2012 at 7:37 pm

  14. OK data to back up my point that the difficulty of the major has not a lot to do with grade distributions. I checked. We had 3498 enrollments in undergraduate classes for the upcoming semester. We have 422 undergrad majors. Some but not a lot of the seats in classes in the undergrad range are filled by grad students in sociology. If the typical number of sociology courses taken by a sociology major is 2 in a semester, 75% of our seats are filled with non-majors; if the average number of sociology courses taken by majors per semester is 3, our courses are 62% non-majors. Even accounting for all sorts of error, well over a majority of all sociology grades on our campus are earned by non-majors. Unless your department is not in the business of providing “service” courses to other units, your numbers are likely to be similar.



    January 5, 2012 at 10:44 pm

  15. I don’t know if we grade more harshly or generously than other departments at my university, but I have anecdotal evidence that students – at least at NU – expect sociology to be easier. Student comments on my course evaluations for the last two years have included statements like, “this course should have been an easy A but it wasn’t”, “family sociology shouldn’t be this hard,” “this course had too much work for a sociology class.”



    January 6, 2012 at 12:18 am

  16. Recent UM soc grad Sasha Achen and former UM provost Paul Courant have a quick Journal of Economics Perspective piece using largely data from Michigan: “What are grades made of?” Sociology here at UM ranks in the middle, with math and the sciences grading substantially harder. The article compares data from the early 90s to the mid 2000s, broken down by lower vs. upper division across 25 departments, and offers some thoughts on departmental imperatives, the role of requirements, objectivity, etc.


    Dan Hirschman

    January 7, 2012 at 5:02 pm

  17. This certainly have some meanings. but besides learning about sociology is not impossible, of course having considered the fact that society is changing day by day. therefore we can understand better sociology by proper efforts.



    January 14, 2012 at 7:51 am

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: