Doing Sociology: Media Portrayals of [Over]Consumption

Kayleen U. Oka, Seattle Central Community College


This integrative assignment involves students finding evidence of [over]consumption in popular culture. The "big ideas" in sociology involve utilizing the sociological imagination and the three main sociological theories (functionalism, conflict theory and symbolic interactionism) to analyze practices of overconsumption and their promotion in the media. The "big ideas" for sustainability include overconsumption and consumerism. The assignment asks students to articulate the possible local and global impacts of overconsumption.

Learning Goals

The rationale and purpose of this assignment is for students to "see" practices of consumption and critically analyze both their expression and impact. It aims to illuminate connections among consumption/capitalism, media/ideology and the degradation of the environment. It also serves to introduce students to the data collection method of content analysis.

The project integrates the "big ideas" of the sociological imagination as well as the application of the three main sociological theories: structural functionalism, conflict theory and symbolic interactionism. The sustainability "big ideas" would be overconsumption and consumerism.

Context for Use

The context for this assignment would be for use in Introductory Sociology, Environmental Sociology and/or Social Problems courses.

This activity could be adapted and changed to work as a major or minor assignment. In this description it is used as the major assignment for the course and thus would be introduced early in the quarter, but due towards the end. It would require time to introduce the assignment, to explain content analysis and have students practice making coding sheets (approximately three 50 minute classes).

The assignment involves three components: individual data collection, small roundtable presentations and a final research paper of results. The roundtable presentations would require another set of three 50 minutes classes for a class of about 35 students.

Possible Use in Other Courses: This assignment could be adapted to work in other disciplines such as anthropology, journalism or cultural studies.

Description and Teaching Materials

Learning Activities

The project guidelines should be given early in the quarter to have students begin to think about their choice of media and what specific areas of consumption/consumerism they wish to examine. Research methods should also be introduced early (the second week of an 11 week term) with particular focus on content analysis (this is usually done as a mini-lecture and then large group discussion with actual content analysis examples). Smaller incremental tasks would lead to the main assignment. For example, potential research questions/topics could be discussed in small groups and then "final" research questions and sampling criteria handed in to the instructor on a standard form.

Next, after content analysis is explained and coding sheets introduced; students can, as a class, practice creating a coding sheet by developing a research question and looking at a sample of media (eg. magazine ads, commercials) in class. The instructor then approves each student's finalized coding sheet with potential categories, after which they can start data collection on their own (usually taking about three to four weeks).

After data collection students participate in three days of round table presentations (in the ninth week) where they introduce their findings to their peers in smaller groups of about six occurring simultaneously in the same room. These presentations combine similar topics under different themes and are structured to "feel" like an academic conference roundtable presentation. (Create an official "program" with student names and topics.) After peer feedback, students have a week to refine their paper before final submission to the instructor. Coding sheets and any media analyzed (magazine ads, newspaper articles) are included with the final paper.

Throughout the quarter, readings, discussions and other activities (see Reference and Resources section) are introduced to aid in the thinking and analysis of the students' findings. For example, the short video "The Story of Stuff" is shown and local/global implications of overconsumption explored through a mini-lecture and large group discussion. Also, having students do the "garbage activity" (see accompanying assignment below) or to do an online ecological footprint evaluation as a homework assignment enables them to "see" what they personally consume and throw away.

Guidelines for the final paper are discussed extensively, beginning in the second week of class. Students need to include an introduction, methods section, findings and analysis and conclusion. They are asked to connect sociological concepts and/or one or more of the sociological theories to the patterns that they see from their data collection.

Project Guidelines (Microsoft Word 51kB Oct25 11)
Doing Sociology Roundtable Presentations (Microsoft Word 36kB Oct25 11)
SOC Data Workshop (Microsoft Word 29kB Oct25 11)
Grading Rubric (Microsoft Word 39kB Oct25 11)

Teaching Notes and Tips

Variations of this assignment have been done in my Introduction to Sociology course. The final paper topics can be quite unique and interesting which results in engaging reading. Students often reveal that they had never thought deeply about the media's representations and influence on societal behavior. Student feedback has also indicated that students appreciate the small group presentation activity (as opposed to presenting to a larger group) as well as the peer feedback which leads to an improved final paper. Overall, the design of the assignment requires continuous discussion and feedback (both peer and instructor) throughout the quarter which adds to the students' feelings of self ownership of the project. I am attempting to incorporate more "interruption points" where students can share their progress and research trouble spots with each other.

I am also currently revising the roundtable peer evaluations to better elicit qualitative observations and comments (rather than using a four-point Likert scale). Students have expressed that they would like more constructive feedback in narrative form.


For this assignment students are assessed three ways: 1) through a rubric for the final written research paper; 2) through a one-page peer evaluation of their small group roundtable presentations; and 3) through a one page self-reflection paper of the roundtable presentation. The total project is given the following weight of the total course grade: roundtable presentation = 10% (40% peer and 60% self evaluation); final paper = 25% (also, students lose points if, earlier, they did not hand in a research question/coding sheet for instructor review).

The attached Grading Rubric is used as the assessment tool and given to students with the assignment instructions to use as a guideline for their own work. This rubric explicitly asks students to make connections to the "big ideas" of the assignment. Components are weighted differently to emphasize the more important elements of the assignment. For example, explaining their methodology and making sociological connections are weighted higher than mechanics (spelling, grammar).

During the small group roundtable presentations, students also assess their peers both on presentation skills and content (see Roundtable Presentation Directions in Description and Teaching Materials section). These assessments are anonymous, given to the instructor for review (worth 40% of the presentation grade) and returned to the presenters. Also for the roundtable presentations, students are asked to self-reflect on their own presentations and are given guidelines for that self-reflection (worth the remaining 60% of the presentation grade; see attached).

References and Resources

Ecological footprint websites:

Mayerfeld Bell, M. (2009). "Consumption and Materialism" in An Invitation to Environmental Sociology. Thousand Oaks: Pine Forge Press, pp. 33-56.

Robbins, R. (2008). "Constructing the Consumer" in Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon, pp. 14-39.

"The Story of Stuff" video:

Tilford, D. (2000). "Why Consumption Matters". Retrieved from: