Sociology of Animation

In the clip above you can see is one of my favourite moments on The Simpsons:

Skinner: Oh, come on, Edna – we both know these children have no future!

…Prove me wrong, kids. Prove me wrong.

Sociologists Stephen Scanlan and Seth Feinberg argue that studying cartoons can help sociology students apply ‘their sociological imagination to the observation of everyday life’. Though they use The Simpsons as a case study, their observations have relevance to the broader study of animation as a ‘pedagogical practice’ (the theories, methods and principles of teaching and learning).

Scanlan and Feinberg argue that the study of ‘humour and satire can be effective techniques for challenging students to think critically…’ (p. 137). They conducted a survey of sociology students about whether studying the humour on The Simpsons complemented or distracted their learning of broader sociological constructs. The results were positive. Two typical student comments were:

By showing you that concepts we discuss are everywhere in society – even places we wouldn’t think about, like cartoons – The Simpsons helps you think critically about course material.

It makes us look and question a TV show that most of us just watch and don’t think anything about (p. 136).

Scanlan and Feinberg argue that because watching animated series is part of students’ everyday social experience, studying cartoons can help to illustrate sociological themes, thus making critical discussion more accessible. Consequently, Scanlan and Feinberg conclude that animation demonstrates the utility of sociology in ‘the real world’:

The true indication of teaching is measured by students’ ability to grasp course material effectively, and then use that knowledge beyond the classroom. The Simpsons provides a wonderful way to accomplish this goal (p. 138)

Given that cartoons are part of popular culture, the study of animation might be easily dismissed as a frivolous activity. Scanlan and Seth’s research supports the idea for my Sociology of the Mundane series – cartoons represent a useful teaching tool that might help to make scientific concepts relatable to students. As I’ve previously argued in my previous posts on the sociology of animation, cartoons also reproduce cultural and spiritual discourses; they reflect historical and political biases of different societies at particular points in time; and they can also be used to resist mainstream ideologies.


Stephen Scanlan and Seth Feinberg (2000) ‘The Cartoon Society: Using The Simpsons to Teach and Learn Sociology’, Teaching Sociology Vol. 28: 127-139.