Sociologists collect data by conducting surveys, observational studies, and experiments. They also scavenge existing data, hunting for evidence of social patterns in newspapers, diaries, and historical archives.
Why not hunt for sociological data in movies? Movies are as much a human product as, say, newspapers are. Because they are made by and about people in particular social and historical contexts, movies can tell us a lot about typical patterns of inequality, ways of raising children, form of deviance, and just about all other aspects of social life. In fact, because movies are easily accessible, relatively inexpensive, and often a lot of fun, they are in many ways an ideal sociological data resource for undergraduates.
John Lie and I wrote a sociological movie review for each chapter of the third edition of Sociology: Your Compass for a New World and the brief second edition of the book. Movies, especially American movies, are arguably the most popular and influential part of popular culture, not just in the United States but almost everywhere. Accordingly, we figured that our reviews could entertainingly show students that fresh sociological insights can be gleaned even from one of the most taken-for-granted elements of their everyday world.
Now it is your turn to try your hand at writing your own movie review from a sociological perspective. The following template outlines the steps you should take in selecting a movie to review, what to watch for and think about from a sociological angle while watching the movie, and finally, how to write your review. Good luck – and see you at the movies!
How to Watch Movies from a Sociological Perspective
One may assess a movie from sociological, literary, historical, dramatic, technical, philosophical, artistic or other points of view. In each case, the reviewer applies different evaluative criteria drawn from different disciplinary perspectives.
What can we learn about social conditions in a particular time and place from the movie? How and why are the social conditions depicted in the movie different from social conditions in other times and places? For example, James Bond movies from the 1960s and 1970s have much to say about the Cold War, the rise of the United States and the USSR as superpowers, the decline of the UK in world affairs, and men’s attitudes towards women. After the early 1990s, social and political change influenced the way these themes were depicted. It would make a fascinating sociological project to review old and recent James Bond movies with the aim of identifying these changes and the reasons for them. Similarly, Tarzan, Superman, and Disney movies could be analyzed with the aim of identifying change in underlying social conditions as reflected in the movies.
How does the movie distort social reality?
Although movies are mirrors to society, they are far from perfect reflections. Often they systematically distort social realities. Movies can therefore teach us a lot about the prejudices, ideologies, and misconceptions of particular times and places. Consider the 2000 movie, Miss Congeniality, starring Sandra Bullock. It is a Cinderella story in which events permit the heroine’s “true self” to emerge. But while the idea of a “true self” makes for a good story, it denies the sociological fact that one’s identity is always in flux. One’s self remains “true” only until social conditions require the invention of a new self. Why then do we find the idea of a true self so appealing that it reappears in many movies? Sociological movie reviews can often serve as opportunities for raising such important sociological questions.
To what degree does the movie shed light on common or universal social and human problems?
Movies likes those in the Terminator and Matrix series raise an issue that was first popularized when Marry Shelley wrote Frankenstein during the early stages of the Industrial Revolution and that has since become widespread if not universal: human inventions sometimes threaten their creators. Why is this anxiety so widespread? How do other movies tap into common anxieties or other social and human problems? Sociology’s ability to find the universal in the particular is one of its chief strengths. One way of writing an interesting sociological movie review is by identifying a universal theme in the context of a particular story. Doing so will help the viewer see the movie in a new way.
To what degree does the movie provide evidence for or against sociological theory and research?
The 2004 movie, Kinsey, starring Liam Neeson, tells the story of the revolutionary American student of sexual behavior, Alfred Kinsey. Some of Kinsey’s methods were primitive by modern standards. Consequently, although some of his findings have been substantiated by subsequent research, some are suspect. As the case of Kinsey suggests, a sociological movie review may provide an opportunity to highlight advances in sociological theorizing and research.
To what degree does the movie connect biography, social structure, and history?
The 1962 classic, Lawrence of Arabia, starring Peter O’Toole, tells the story of how British Colonel T. E. Lawrence helped to mobilize the Arab national movement during and after World War I. It brilliantly interweaves several stories: Lawrence’s heroism, delusions, successes and failures; how the British and Arab societies he straddled influenced him; and the way he became an agent and victim of historical forces more powerful than any one man. C. Wright Mills famously argued that sociology at its best connects biography, social structure, and history. Selecting a movie that allows you to showcase sociology at its best is a good starting point for writing a sociological movie review.
In short, when you select a movie to review, make sure that it affords you the opportunity to illustrate the value of the sociological perspective. Use one or more of the five criteria listed above to help you choose a movie and a theme for your review.
More than that, you should try to see beyond the obvious. Sociologists Randall Collins and Anthony Giddens argue that sociology is valuable only when its findings are non-obvious or surprising. Accordingly, when you write a movie review, you should use your sociological imagination to spot issues and themes that will allow the reader to see the world in a new way – as a place where social influences that may be hidden to people as they go about their everyday lives deeply influence the way they live. All else the same, the difference between a good and an excellent review may be that an excellent review contains more sociological surprises.
Writing Your Review
Now that you have selected the movie you want to review and watched it bearing in mind the evaluative criteria listed above, you are ready to begin writing your review.
Your review should have a title page specifying the title of the movie you are reviewing, your name, the names of your instructor and class, your student ID number, and the date you are submitting the review. The title page should be followed by the body of the review, which should be about 750 words long – about three double-spaced pages using a 12-point font. If you cite any sources, the full citations should appear in a separate References section at the end. Use the standard Chicago citation style (see http://library.osu.edu/sites/guides/chicagogd.php).
Story, Dialogue, Action!
Movies tell stories, and so should your review. Dialogue and action bring stories to life, and you can increase your readers’ interest by quoting revealing snippets of dialogue and describing the action that takes place during important scenes. These narrative elements are especially effective when used in the introductory paragraphs because they help to engage the reader. Remember, though, that your job is not to tell the whole story of the movie but to focus on aspects of sociological relevance. Don’t let the movie’s narrative control you; use the movie to tell your sociological story.
The main body of your review – all but the introductory and concluding paragraphs – should develop your sociological argument. This is where you tell the reader about the sociological significance of the movie, applying one or more of the five criteria listed above. Roughly two-thirds of the review should be devoted to this purpose.
A summary paragraph should concisely state your main conclusion and leave the reader with something to think about after he or she finishes reading the review. You may provoke the reader by asking a telling question, identifying an intriguing paradox or mentioning an unresolved issue.
Keep it Real
Your review should be grammatical and you should always use correct spelling and punctuation. But beyond these obvious requirements, remember that it always pays to write in a straightforward way. Don’t use flowery prose. Employ sociological terms sparingly. Remember that a sentence is the shortest distance between two points. Avoid the passive voice (“John saw the car,” not “The car was seen by John”). Don’t use big words when small words will do as well. Use the spell-check and grammar-check features of your word processing program. Read and re-read your review. Then read it again. You can always improve it.
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times is probably the most popular movie reviewer in the United States – and deservedly so. Profoundly knowledgeable about the movies and their history, Ebert writes plainly, amusingly, and without airs. He often sees through superficialities, thereby discovering what others miss, and he has a good sociological eye. Visit http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/frontpage for his reviews.
The Internet Movie Database at http://us.imdb.com/search allows you to retrieve information on thousands of movies by conducting online searches for titles, actors, characters, and so forth. It’s an invaluable resource for tracking down information and drawing connections.
Nearly 50 movie reviews have appeared in the various editions of Sociology: Your Compass for a New World. They are available online at http://www.chass.utoronto.ca/brym/SocAtMovies.html.