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Teaching guide: The sociology of personal life (podcast)

These podcast teaching guides cover topics from our AS and A-level Sociology specifications. You can download them below.

Podcast 1: The sociology of personal life

The sociology of personal life is relevant to the Families and households topic - an optional topic on both the new AS and A-level specifications. In this podcast we’ll give you an overview of the Sociology of personal life and some guidance on delivering this area of study to your students.


Hello and welcome to AQA’s sociology podcast supporting your teaching of our new AS and A-level specifications. In this podcast we’ll give you an overview of the sociology of personal life and some guidance on delivering this area of study to your students.

The first thing to point out is that this area of sociology is only relevant to the Families and Households topic, an optional topic on both the new AS and A-level specifications. If you’ve previously taught our legacy sociology specification you may be familiar with much of the Family and Households topic. Hopefully this will mean preparing to teach this area shouldn’t be too time-consuming for you. However, even if you’ve taught a similar topic in the past you’ll need to take into consideration the differences in the way the topic is assessed, depending on whether the student is being examined on the AS or A-level.

To help with this, you’ll find specimen assessment materials and marked student answers on our main website and also on e-AQA, our secure website. If you are familiar with the legacy specification, the only change you’ll notice to the content of the Families and Households topic is the addition of sociology of personal Life. Therefore this podcast will focus specifically on the sociology of personal life. We’ll give you a contextual understanding of the topic, providing ways in which you can incorporate it into your new schemes of work and also provide an insight on how this area could be assessed in both the AS and A-level exam papers.

As society evolves, sociology can become outdated. It’s important to us that current students and potential future sociologists are informed of the most recent ways of thinking. That’s why we are pleased to include the sociology of personal life in our new specifications.

The sociology of personal life provides a way of explaining the diversity of families, households and relationships we find in society today. It can be used to discuss a number of areas in the families and households topic.

You could introduce the sociology of personal life to your students when teaching modern and postmodern views of family diversity. Personal life sociologists such as Carol Smart have accused modern sociological theories such as Functionalism and Marxism of making generalisations about family life which do not fit the realities of the society we live in today. For example, their notion of a family is one that is nuclear in structure with fixed traditional gender roles and this does not recognise the complexity of contemporary family life. The polar argument to this view on family life comes from more postmodern sociologists such as Giddens, Beck and Bauman. They suggest that there has been a process of individualisation in relation to family life. This means that a family can be constructed anyway that a group of individuals would like. People are able to decide for themselves how to shape their families, and their family relationships, and they are not influenced by traditions or norms when they make these decisions.

The explanation of family diversity and relationships put forward by personal life sociologists such as Carol Smart and May, sits in between modern and postmodern explanations. Smart accepts that people now have more freedom to construct their own families and decide on their own family relationships.

But she also believes that this can’t be done in isolation from the traditions and norms of the family that are provided by society. She criticises theories of individualization of choice for suggesting that people’s decisions are detached from external influences altogether. Her theory is that the families and roles that people are constructing have an element of individual choice but the choices that people are making are; firstly very much embedded in their past experiences or family history, secondly the expectations of the society they presently live in, and thirdly subject to structural factors such as social class, ethnic and gender inequalities.

Take an adult who spent the majority of their childhood in the care system. Their past may have seen them removed from their parents who were substance abusers. They may have spent some time living with a foster family headed by a same-sex couple and eventually they may have been adopted by a middle-aged, middle-class couple. Modern structural theories pay no consideration to this adult’s previous experience and make the assumption that the adult will form a nuclear family of their own. According to the personal life perspective the relationships or family the adult will create are very much influenced by their own personal experience or family history. As a result, influences on behaviour normally associated with other subjects such as memory, imagination and emotion are also important to the sociology of personal life. So, this adult may develop a stable nuclear family. This could be influenced by them wanting the type of family they never had. Gender roles within their constructed family may be shared or equal as a result of the experience they had when living with the same-sex couple. Alternatively another scenario could occur where the adult creates a family characterised by the instability and substance miss-use that they experienced as a child.

The point is that the development of families and relationships is complex. It’s not fully based on the independence and freedom of choice emphasised by postmodern theories nor is it wholly determined by society as emphasised by structural sociological theories. The personal life approach puts forward the idea that families are constructed through choices but these choices are made within a social context.

When discussing the personal life approach with your students it’s also necessary to move beyond looking at the family by discussing other meaningful relationships that individuals may have. This is because the personal life approach recognises that the family is not the only significant relationship in people’s lives. It’s common for people to be estranged from their family or not have a family at all. Their identity or sense of belonging comes from other meaningful relationships. For example, to some people their friend’s parents may be a father and mother figure to them. Their friend could be more like a brother or sister. Memories of late grandparents can live on in a person’s memory and help shape their identity and future relationships. Personal relationships with God can also be influential. Therefore, when discussing personal lives with your students ensure to mention that the theory moves beyond families to discuss relationships of which a family is an example.

The next section of this podcast will cover how to approach teaching the sociology of personal life and some activities that could help your students access the topic.

Teaching the material on personal lives will tie in well to the topic of changes to the family and family diversity. It would probably help the students if they had some prior knowledge on modern structural theories for example Functionalists, Marxists and Feminists and what their views on family diversity are. Even the Rapoports and Chester represent fairly traditional and categorised views on gender roles, relationships and family life. After introducing students to structural views, you can present the opposing more individualised and postmodern views of gender roles, relationships and family life put forward by sociologists such as Beck and Giddens. This will place students in a strong position to access the sociology of personal life which sits in between the two former approaches by recognising both external influence and individual choice when negotiating family and relationships.

The amount of teaching time you dedicate to the sociology of personal life depends on individual learner needs and your own preference, but before deciding it’s worth noting that this is on the new specifications and could be asked in the exams.

One way to introduce the topic could be to set a homework task in advance asking students to bring in family photos to their next lesson or think about three important relationships they have in their lives. Some may bring photos of parents, friends, grandparents, pets or even mention religious beliefs. Then get students into pairs or small groups with people you think they may be able to trust or work well with. Give each student time in order to be able to give a brief biography of the people they have important relationships with. Tell them to think about who the person is, their character traits and attitudes, what they do as a job, their age etc. Then ask the students how each relationship may impact the personal relationship or the family they may choose to have when they are a bit older.

To stay on track, you could use a timer to keep the discussion brief. Perhaps use a Kagan structure to organise the discussion where one student talks for a certain time while the other student listens and then roles are swapped. You could ask one or two students to feedback the information their partner provided, if they feel comfortable with this.

Another starter activity to re-introduce students to structural factors that may influence family or personal relationships is a card matching game. Give your students cards labelled: gender, ethnicity, social class, income, religion, patriarchy, and norms and values. Students then match these to their definitions and discuss how these factors could affect the family life and personal relationships that people may have.

As another teaching method: provide an information sheet or textbook photocopy of the work of sociologists such as Carol Smart and May which students then read and answer questions on. The questions could be composed using Bloom’s taxonomy starting off with questions based on knowledge and understanding and finishing by encouraging higher order thinking skills such as analysis and evaluation.

If you want to encourage students to exercise higher order skills, create an activity which allows each student to compare and contrast the sociology of personal life to modern structural theories and postmodern theories of individualization. For example: one activity students could do first is summarise the three approaches using an activity called ‘What’s the Cause’? This is where you give the effects on family life and relationships according to the three approaches and then students have to write the causes of those effects.

So for structural theories you may say the effect on family life is nuclear families with fixed gender roles. Students then fill in the cause section. Once this activity is complete it will be easier for the students to sit back and pull out the similarities and differences between the three theories on family diversity.

Finally, let’s consider how the sociology of personal life could be assessed. On Paper 2 of the second set of specimen assessment materials, (which can be accessed on e-AQA) there is an example of a question relating to the sociology of personal life. The question asks:

Using one example, briefly explain how individuals may have significant personal relationships besides those relationships with family members.

This is a two mark question which requires not just the identification of a relationship but brief development. There are many possible answers. One such answer could be that people have a personal relationship with God where they seek moral guidance and advice. Another answer could be a pet where individuals receive love and comfort. This two mark question on the specimen paper highlights that this topic needs quite specific coverage and shows that a variety of questions could be asked in relation to the sociology of personal life.

The topic could also be woven into an essay on family diversity alongside modern structural views and postmodern individualisation views. On the AS papers for the new specification these essays have been reduced from 24 marks (from the legacy specification) to 20 marks and will follow the format: “Applying material from Item X and your knowledge, evaluate…”

Remember to point out to your students that the sociology of personal life can potentially contribute to debates in a number of other areas in the families and households topic such as notions of childhood and also as a critic of structural perspectives like Functionalism, Marxism and Feminism.

Thank you for listening to this instalment in AQA’s series of sociology podcasts. We hope that this has helped to effectively introduce the sociology of personal life to you. If you have any questions feel free to contact us by phone on 01483 477 822 or email us at psychology@aqa.org.uk. Thank you and goodbye.

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