Psychology 488-01 (Senior Seminar)/WGSS 405-1

Lives in Context:  Psychology and Social Structure

Fall 2011


Professor:      Joan Ostrove

                                Olin-Rice 325




Office hours:    Wednesdays, 1 – 3 p.m.,

                                    and by appointment



Course overview:


In this seminar we will explore the relationship between individual lives and broad social systems.  We will read theory, research, and case material from psychology as well as other disciplines about the individual and interpersonal implications of social organization/social structure (in the domains of gender, social class, race, physical ability, sexuality, etc.).  We will explore the ways in which oppressive messages and experiences (based in sexism, racism, classism, homophobia, etc.) are experienced and sometimes internalized by individual members of particular social groups, thereby shaping our “personalities” and influencing our psychological perceptions and expectations about the world and about other people. 

In addition to the above, this course will also allow us to think about HOW best to study and understand the relationship between individual lives and social structure.  How can we really understand lives in their myriad contexts?  What’s the best strategy for doing this?  Is it even possible?  What are some of the methodological, conceptual, and ethical dilemmas and challenges involved in such an undertaking?  Because feminist psychologists have played a critical role in shaping methodology and research in these areas, we will read a considerable amount of work by feminist psychologists and other feminist academics.

Although these are some of the ideas that have formed the basis for how I’ve thought about and organized the class, there is an opportunity in the structure of a seminar for the class to evolve in a variety of different ways over the course of the semester.  The topic for the course is huge and the concepts are often not easy to wrap our minds around – we could spend an entire semester on one aspect of social structure and not read or think about everything there is to read or think about!  And, of course, you’ll notice plenty of things that are left out of the course that you (and probably I!) might wish were there.  In keeping with the department’s goal that senior seminars include substantial student-generated ideas for course content, and in order to give you a chance to expand on an area of the class that you find particularly interesting – or to introduce an area that the class doesn’t cover – you’ll sign up in pairs to lead one of the classes during the semester.  We’ll spend more time figuring out the logistics of how this will work during the first couple of classes.  In general, though, you will work with me and your partner to develop a topic, will do some research on that topic and assign the day’s readings, and will lead class on the day for which you sign up. 




                  It is your primary responsibility to come to class prepared, having read and thought about the readings for the day.  Participation may mean a lot of different things – sharing your ideas and thoughts; listening well to others’ ideas; asking questions; connecting the course material to issues in your life or the lives of other people you know, and/or to issues on campus and in the world, etc. 

In addition, the course has the following requirements:


·          Essays – There will be two personal essays, and one more formal, midterm essay due during the semester.  The more personal essays will be a chance for you to reflect – at the beginning and at the end of the semester – on the social structural contexts that you think have most influenced your own life (especially on why and how they’ve influenced you).   You may pick one dimension of social structure (e.g., gender, class, race, etc.) and explore how you think it has affected you, or you may focus on more than one dimension.  If you’d prefer not to write about yourself, you may choose another person whom you know well, but I encourage you to use this as an opportunity to understand the ways in which learning is about personal as well as intellectual transformation.  This essay should be about 3-5 pages in length and should be well-written and contain no grammatical or typographical errors.  The formal midterm essay question(s) will be available later in the term and will be a chance for you to integrate the course material and to think “on paper” about what we’ve been learning and thinking about in class.


·          Leading class – This is an opportunity for you to work with one other person in class to prepare and lead one section of the class.  The “slots” for student-led classes are listed in the syllabus and are at the end of the semester.  By that time, we’ll have read and talked about some theoretical frameworks for understanding the relationship between individual psychology and aspects of the social structure, and will have read many examples of how psychologists (and others) have actually gone about studying this relationship.  We will talk more about this and about how to pick an effective topic during the semester.  You will need to hand in a proposal for your presentation, and will meet with me after you hand in the proposal and again right before you lead class.  You will be responsible for picking an article to assign to the rest of the class (if two students work collaboratively to lead class, they will assign two articles).  You’ll need to get a copy of the article to me at least 4 days before your class so that I can post it on Moodle. 


·          A final paper/project will be due Friday, Dec 16th, by 5 p.m.  I want this to be an opportunity for you to explore in depth an issue that you are interested in, and I want to provide you with a variety of possible formats in which to do this.  We’ll talk about this more as the semester goes on, but a couple of possibilities include:  1) An interview project.  This would be a chance to explore one particular “life in context” by interviewing someone whose life you think is interesting, and providing an analysis of the ways in which various aspects of the social structure have had an influence on his or her “psychology;” 2) An archival case study.  This would be similar to the interview project, but would be about someone to whom you do not have direct access for an interview but about whom you can collect other information (biographies, autobiographies, etc.) that would be sufficient for writing about their life from the perspective of how their social structural position(s) influenced them as people; 3) A literature review.  Perhaps you are interested in how social class influences personality.  You could review the psychological (and perhaps sociological) literature on this topic and provide a critical summary of the findings, including your assessment of both the strengths of particular pieces of research as well as your suggestions for future work in this area.



Percentage of final grade



    Personal essay 1


    Personal essay 2


    Midterm essay


    [Leading class proposal

Subtract 2 pts from leading class grade if not turned in]

    Leading class


    [Final proposal

Subtract 5 points from final project grade if not turned in]

    Final project



Course policies:

·          Academic integrity:  I expect all of you to follow the College’s guidelines regarding academic integrity, outlined in the Student Handbook (  Please talk to me if you are not clear how these guidelines apply to the course.  I will report any violation of academic integrity to the Director of Academic Programs.  Academic dishonesty usually results in at least a failing grade on the assignment, and a second instance of dishonesty may result in a failing grade in the course.

·          Late work:  You may not receive extensions on work in the class, except in the most extraordinary circumstances (in which case you will need documentation from the Dean of Students Office or Health Services).  Work that is turned in late for any other reason will have a third of a grade taken off for each day that it is late (e.g., a B+ would become a B if you hand in an essay or your final paper any time after the exact time that it is due – the “day late” begins immediately after the time the assignment is due; you may not turn in late work via Moodle so I strongly encourage you not to turn in late work as you will have to negotiate an alternative arrangement with me).

·          Incompletes:  I will only grant incompletes under extraordinary circumstances that occur in the second part of the semester.  This will not include being really busy at the end of the semester.

·          Written assignments:  Please type, double-spaced with 12-point font, all of your written assignments for this course.  Please do not use margins that are larger than 1 inch – all around.  Don’t use smaller margins, or smaller font, either – length is not necessarily strength!

·          Accommodations for students with disabilities:  I will provide any reasonable accommodation for students with disabilities that will assist in making this course accessible and will provide an optimal educational experience for everyone. Please speak to me at the beginning of the semester so that we can make an effective plan.  See for additional information and assistance.

·          Religious observance: If you will miss class because of a religious observance, please let me know in advance to make alternate arrangements.

·          Cell phones:  Please turn your cell phones and other mobile devices off or to a (completely) silent (vibrate is not silent!) mode while in class.  Except under extraordinary circumstances, you may not make or accept phone calls or text messages during class.  If you know you are expecting a call or text in an emergency situation, please try to let me know in advance of class that this may happen.  If you must take a call, do so quietly outside of the classroom.




The following required books are available at the college bookstore:


Articles are available on the course Moodle site.



NOTE:                Readings are to be completed for the day they are listed

Assignments must be submitted via the Moodle site by 5 p.m. on the day they are due; Moodle will not accept late submissions (see late work policy above).


Thurs, Sept 8 – Introduction to the course and each other


Part I:  UNDERSTANDING the relationship between psychology and social structure:  examples, theories, examples…


Tues, Sept 13 – First example:  Social class (and race… and gender… and…)


Thurs, Sept 15 – Looking beyond individual variables to explain success:  The importance of context

·          Gladwell (please read the entire book for today – it’s a quick read!)



Tues, Sept 20 – Theorizing the relationship between social structure and psychology I


Thurs, Sept 22 – Psychological meanings of social class, continued

·          Fussell, P. (1983).  Chapter 1 from Class:  A guide through the American class system. NY:  Simon & Schuster

·          Kadi, J. (1996). Chapter 2 from Thinking class: Sketches from a cultural worker.  Boston:  South End Press.

·          View first part of People Like Us [in class]


Tues, Sept 27 – Psychological meanings of social class, continued

·          Aries (Chapters 1-4, to page 63)

·          Finish viewing People Like Us




Thurs, Sept 29 – No class (Rosh Hashanah)


Tues, Oct 4 – Race and class in a college context

·          Aries (to end)

·          Guest:  Krista Sorio, doctoral student in Educational Policy and Administration (Higher Education emphasis), University of Minnesota


Thurs, Oct 6 – Theorizing the relationship between social structure and psychology II


Tues, Oct 11 – Social and psychological meanings of gender


Thurs, Oct 13 – Social and psychological meanings of disability


Tues, Oct 18 – Internalization of and resistance to oppression


Thurs, Oct 20 – Back to issues of social class and education

Guest:  Deborah Megivern Foster, PhD

Tues, Oct 25 – Quantitative and qualitative examples of research on psychology and social structure 




Thurs, Oct 27 – no class (Fall break!)


Tues, Nov 1 – More examples… a memoir






Thurs, Nov 3 – Some strategies and arenas for taking account of social structure when doing research


Tues, Nov 8 – Ethical and personal considerations in studying lives


Thurs, Nov 10 – Relations across social structural differences

·          Plant, E. A., Devine, P. G., & Peruche, M. B. (2010). Routes to positive interracial interactions:  Approaching egalitarianism or avoiding prejudice? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36, 1135-1147. 


Tues, Nov 15 [student led]


Thurs, Nov 17 [student led]


Tues, Nov 22 [student led]


Thurs, Nov 24 – no class (Thanksgiving)


Tues, Nov 29 [student led]


Thurs, Dec 1 [student led]


Tues, Dec 6 [student led]



Thurs, Dec 8 [student led]


Tues, Dec 13 – last day of class: review, wrap up, reflect, think ahead






Grading Guidelines


Below are the guidelines I follow when assigning grades to essays and final papers.  I use plusses and minuses when the work falls in between the qualities associated with each letter grade.  Grades are based both on content and on writing style.  I encourage you to ask for help from me, the MAX Center, or any other reasonable source if you’d like assistance with writing.  Please acknowledge resources you use in a footnote to your paper.


“A” grades are assigned to outstanding papers.  These papers reflect a deep engagement with ideas, insightful analysis, and excellent mastery of the material from the course.  Argumentation is logical and coherent, as well as well-documented.  The paper addresses all aspects of the assignment fully and clearly.  Finally, these “A” papers are well-written with respect to style and grammar.


“B” grades are assigned to papers that demonstrate good understanding of the material, are coherently written, and that contain some insightful ideas.  Sometimes “B” papers contain some really good ideas, but do not put things together as elegantly as they could.  Other times all of the aspects of the assignment are there, but the ideas are not particularly innovative.


“C” grades are given to papers that do not adequately cover the assignment, demonstrate that the material was not fully understood, and/or have problems with writing style.  Sometimes “C” papers have some really good parts, mixed in with some parts that seem like they were not well-thought out.  Papers with consistent grammatical or stylistic problems may receive a “C.”


“D” grades are assigned to papers/essays that have serious problems – parts of the assignment are totally missing or are really incomplete, the writing is full of errors, the material was seriously misunderstood. 


“NC” grades are hardly ever given if a student has put even some work into the paper/essay.  However, if the content is totally irrelevant, or the writing is such that it is simply impossible for me to follow the arguments, then I would assign a failing grade.