January 2009 Issue Volume 37 Issue 1

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Sociology Students Active in the Election of 2008

by Edward J. Matchett, ASA Academic and Professional Affairs Program

Having just concluded an election that brought one of the highest rates of voter turnout in four decades, we enter a new chapter in American history. Frequently labeled a movement by some and a realignment by others, the 2008 election captivated the attention and imagination of political pundits and novices alike. It should be of no surprise that sociology students, with their propensity for social and political activism, were similarly affected. Whether it was engaging in spirited classroom discussions, volunteering for campaigns, or participating in civil protests, sociology students—at the undergraduate and graduate level—were often actively engaged.

Concerns over issues of social justice, war and peace, and the role of government in society fueled a heightened enthusiasm among the sociology students who were interviewed for this article. After speaking with both students and faculty at four campuses across the United States, it became clear that the election’s dominant frames of gender, race, and age created a narrative that struck unusually close to home for many sociology students.

Even in the context of the 2008 election, the memory of 2004 was unmistakable. "Going into November, I was cautiously optimistic. I remember what happened in 2004—I was so sure we were going to win, but as you know, it was not to be. Since it was so close last time, I made sure I stepped up my involvement. I wanted this time to be different," said Tracy Wade, a sociology major from Augsburg College.


A sociology student displays her enthusiasm
for the 2008 presidential election.

A number of students felt that the victory of Barack Obama was the first affirmation that their participation not only mattered but actually affected change. It was, after all, in 2004 that young adults voted in greater numbers than in any election since 18-year-olds were given the right to vote. In fact, the only age demographic that John Kerry won was the youth vote. "Having your hopes dashed like that isn’t something you forget," said Eliza McManus, a sociology and psychology major at Augsburg.

Many of the students who were active in the 2004 cycle admitted they were skeptical about 2008. One student stated that seeing the candidate she voted for in 2004 lose was "devastating" for many of his peers. While many students echoed this feeling, there was a silver lining that came from that election. Until 2004, many inside the political apparatus dismissed the youth vote all together. The strong youth turnout of 2004 showed that, given the right incentive, young people would get out the vote. Thus, they could not be ignored any longer.

The confluence of the web 2.0 revolutions and a candidate who concentrated a vast sum of campaign resources on youth outreach and mobilization created a sort of viral phenomenon among the nation’s youth.

Daina Eglitis, a professor of sociology at George Washington University, suggested that it was not at all surprising that 2008 brought such heartfelt participation among sociology students. "I see our sociology students as engaged not only in campaign-season activism, but in sustained commitments to community service, volunteering, and the like," she said. "There is a social justice motive that underpins both kinds of activism and ties them together." For example, Eglitis said that most students who were involved in political activism were involved in "the Democratic campaign and several, particularly those who were also members of the College Democrats, worked on canvassing, phone banking, and other [get out the vote] activities."

In addition to direct participation, the election served as a popular topic in sociology classrooms. Some professors used it as a learning tool. Eglitis offered a unique approach to such integration, building an entire class exercise around the theme. "We held a mock election of our own," she said. Attempting to provide "an atmosphere that is inclusive and comfortable for all students, regardless of political persuasion," Eglitis opted to keep the topic of the election centered on class material that she felt she could keep the tone of the classroom "rather neutral." Using the election as a guiding framework, she separated students into 10 groups. Each group made campaign posters and speeches nominating a modern social theorist for president. Having studied the theorists in class, each group of students had to focus on supporting their nominee. However, Eglitis noted, "the discourses and slogans of the real campaign made their way—albeit with humor—into our "campaigns" as well. At the end of the exercise, the students voted on the candidates and selected a winner.

In addition, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill sociologist Andrew Perrin required his first-year seminar class to blog about the election. In lieu of a final paper, the blogging requirement was designed to give students a conceptual framework for thinking about the democratic process. "I wanted students to come away from this exercise with a better understanding of both the possibilities and the impediments to good democratic citizenship in the United States."

All together, there were nine teams of bloggers in Perrin’s class. Each team commented weekly on three races: the presidential election, the North Carolina gubernatorial race, and the North Carolina Senate race. For each race, there were three teams, focusing on television coverage, on newspaper coverage, and another on websites and other blogs.

In reflecting on the success of the exercise, Perrin stated, "It went well. It gave students an opportunity to practice constructing an argument based on evidence. I wanted them to reason with evidence, not just give me their opinion. For each post, students had to mobilize and construct evidence to support their argument." Perrin said that he thought the blog format—writing shorter segments over an extended period of time—worked especially well with his class of younger students (see unc6608.wordpress.com/). "Even though it was a smaller blurb, they still had to take a position and defend it, just as they would in a final paper," Perrin said.

For Rachel Jackson, a senior sociology major at Luther College in Decorah, IA, the 2008 election was a true journey. Braving a cold wintry night in Iowa last January to caucus, she joined the thousands of first-time caucus goers. "Participating in this election had to do with feeling a dire need to see some change happen in this country. As a sociology student, I have become aware of how there can be no true social change without some kind of social movement involving many individuals coming together as a collective unit; it has to be more than just a few individuals here and there taking action," she said. "Being involved in the election," she continued, "was really about being a part of a larger social movement that demanded change by selecting fresh leadership that would actually make that possible. For me, that fresh leadership came in the form of the movement surrounding Barack Obama. So this time, I became very involved," she concluded.

For Erin Scott, a senior at Augsburg College, "It was a chance to symbolically defeat the Bush legacy. I think that even if you didn’t follow all the issues, knowing that Obama represented a clear break from the past was a pretty powerful motivator for a lot of people, especially people my age." logo_small


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