Sociology of Jay-Z: Implications of Studying Celebrities

Mike Barry via Flickr.

I feel ambivalent about this: an American sociology course on rap maverick Jay-Z is being offered at Georgetown University. This story has received a lot of press over the past few weeks. I believe this story was first reported on MTV in the USA. Michael Eric Dyson, the course creator, reports that the course has attracted four times the size of an average Georgetown course (with 140 students). I first saw this story on Ology, but it’s also been picked up by The Daily Beast, The Washington Post, The L.A. Times and on many other sites. In this post, I consider the applied sociological implications of studying courses on celebrities. I place this in broader context of the ongoing problem that sociology has in preparing graduates for workplaces outside academia.

As a sociologist who is interested in promoting the study and break-down of otherness, I can only applaud Dyson’s premise that rap, hip hop and African American culture deserve greater legitimacy by mainstream culture. He tells MTV:

I think that’s why it’s important for young people to see that the rhetorical invention of African American culture needs to be taken seriously with one of its greatest artists

Without doubt, hip hop is a fine sociological topic for a course because it is broad enough to span various musical influences, a myriad of historical and social issues, whilst addressing its cultural significance – but a course focused on a single artist? Sure it brings in the students because Jay-Z is a very popular artist. Jay-Z is also an influential music producer. Is Jay-Z’s body of work substantial enough for an entire sociology course? It sounds like a fun topic to study. Heck, I love his music. Yet as an applied sociologist who advocates on increasing the esteem and utility of sociological practice outside academia, I’m a bit worried about how studying one artist would help graduates land work as a sociological practitioner. I would be just as worried about a course that focuses on a single social theorist or a single sociological textbook. I feel just as dubious about the fact that another sociology course focused on Lady Gaga and the Sociology of Fame at the University of South Carolina. (Although again, I don’t have a problem with such a course if it is offering a broad-ranging critical look at popular culture and the cult of celebrity.)

Perhaps it is possible to make such a unit work. Dyson argues that Jay-Z is a stand-in figure for broader ‘black culture’. Still, my feeling is that a sociology course with a wider focus on hip hop as a genre would expand the possibilities and applications.

Dyson is a gifted public sociologist. He is highly skilled at discussing comprehensive social issues in an entertaining and intelligent way. Why not apply this wit, passion and sociological critique to a holistic sociology course on hip hop and rap? Is focusing on a singular artist simply pandering to populist whims? Is this an example of a sociology educator indulging their inner fan-boy whim or is this a clever strategy to connect with students?

It’s important that we make sociology relevant to different publics. This includes sociology students, who are the cornerstone audience for our discipline. I’m always complaining about the fact that sociologists do a poor job of marketing our discipline to students and embedding ourselves into popular culture. Few people in the world know what sociology is and what we can do. (Sigh – It’s a Hard Knock Life for Us. Am I right? Oh – you don’t like lame puns? Ok then.) Race is a difficult topic to teach – I’ve taught a course on ethnicity, race and multiculturalism in Melbourne, Australia and I know from experience that it is tricky to make students engage with notions of privilege, otherness and postcolonialism. Perhaps focusing on a popular artist is one way to introduce students to the complexity of race and popular culture.

It's important that we make sociology relevant to different publics. This includes sociology students, the cornerstone audience for our discipline.            This means: *Demonstrating the wider applications of our knowledge to real world problems. *Better job training for our graduates
It’s important that we make sociology relevant to different publics. This includes sociology students, the cornerstone audience for our discipline. This means: *Demonstrating the wider applications of our knowledge to real world problems. *Better job training for our graduates

Then again, I keep going back to my personal focus on applied sociology. Sociology has continually struggled to prepare its graduates for the workplace. Specifically, sociology students have trouble knowing how to apply their knowledge of social issues, theories and concepts in practical ways in specific jobs. In America, sociology graduates are often disillusioned with their job outcomes upon completion of their degrees. In Australia, a broad evaluation of sociology education finds that our discipline is invisible to most high school and university students. This study finds that sociology educators struggle to connect their teaching with students’ needs and in balancing theoretical and vocational training demands. Other research finds that universities struggle to entice students to pursue sociology beyond a basic undergraduate degree because students don’t know what benefits this will bring their careers. There is a disconnect between students who follow sociology out of interest for the topics we cover in the classroom, and their ability see a clear and fulfilling career path at the end of their degrees.

As a news story, Dyson’s Georgetown Jay-Z course certainly has spiked media interest – so maybe I should just be happy that sociology is making headlines. Perhaps this opens up a sociological door for students – but shouldn’t we also think about where that door will lead them once they leave university? Should sociology courses be more concerned with the wider applications and job training of its students? I certainly think so. What do other sociologists out there think, I wonder?

Check out Dyson on Left of Black (originally posted on The Huffington Post) and enjoy Jay-Z’s music below as you ponder the utility of sociology courses on celebrities and the career socialisation of our graduates.

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4 thoughts on “Sociology of Jay-Z: Implications of Studying Celebrities

  1. UC Berkeley, Harvard and UW all have offered classes on 2Pac Shakur, placing his lyrics in a broader context of literature, poetry and history (all of which have a sociological component, as well.)

    I think waiting for artists or other modern figures to die before we acknowledge their importance is short-sighted for all disciplines, but in my opinion, especially in sociology.

    I would hope that any dedicated instructor would use one figure to illuminate multiple theoretical perspectives, social problems, or hey! even methods (if we’re getting ambitious here.)

    I’m a grad student (so what do I know, lol) and I have wished for classes on one theory, one theorist, one or two methods, etc because it just doesn’t seem there’s enough time to really dig into what needs to be exhumed. And, I’ll say that currently, my institutional ethnography course is almost completely focused on D. Smith (and for good reason) so, I think there’s a place for a more micro-approach that leads to more macro conclusions at the end of a class.

    Really, anything getting folks excited about sociology is great. And if kids can see how it can relate to things they care about, maybe they’ll see how it relates to the world they would like to impact positively.

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  2. Hi thelittlepecan ,

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I really like what you’re saying here. I suspect you’re probably right – getting people excited about sociology in any way is a positive thing. I was particularly struck by your comment about not waiting until pop icons have died before we help students understand their cultural impact. I will have to think about this more. These are the sorts of issues I wanted to work through, so thanks for your input! Good luck with your grad studies.

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    1. Sorry about the delayed reaction here Thelittlepecan. I wanted to let you know that I also did all my studies at a university with a very small sociology department. While there were some drawbacks I can see in hindsight (less resources, smaller pool of people to network for jobs etc.) the benefits far outweigh the minor limitations! You get to really know your lecturers and they end up becoming proper colleagues. I’ve taught at a large, renowned university and it was far more impersonal simply because the classes are so huge.

      Also I’ve read your blog. I love your piece about friendship. I’ll comment on it in a tick. Hope your week has been good one!

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