SOC 172


 Prof. Akos Rona-Tas


2017 Spring

 The American Dream through Films

Center Hall 222 




SSB 401

M W F 12:00-12:50



Office hours:



  WF 1:00-2:00




by appointment




 One of the most distinctive features of American culture is the widely held belief that anyone can achieve happiness through material and social success, and can attain material and social success through hard work, courage and determination. Using documentary and feature films as well as scholarly readings, the course explores various aspects of the American Dream.  In this class, we will use films to make central sociological themes come alive. They will serve as springboards to understanding general social processes in American society. The analysis of the films will explore the moral and behavioral foundations of Hollywood cinema dealing with social issues.

The ten movies all will be on ereserves for streaming. The movies range from 72 to 200 minutes in length.


To access the films from off campus you will need to have a proxy server. Click here:  and follow the instructions.

To set up the proxy server you will need your UCSD userid and password.


Each time a movie is listed, you have to pick a scene from the film you like and would like to talk about. You have to write it on a piece of paper with your name and the time stamp of the scene (from H:MM:SS to H:MM:SS). I will collect those at the beginning of each class and will draw randomly from them. If your entry is selected you will have to tell us why you picked that scene and what is interesting about it.


The articles will be on e-reserves as well. There is no textbook for this course. You have to do the reading and watch the assigned films in their entirety before class. In class, we will watch only excerpts from the films.

When you watch the films and read the articles take notes. The midterm and the final will both have questions about the content of the films and the articles along with the content of the lectures.

You will be very busy in this class. You will have to keep up with the reading and viewing assignments and cannot fall behind.

Warning: Because there is no textbook a lot of the material will be heard only in class. I will put my lecture slides on the web as we go but those are just reminders of what was said in my lecture. You are expected to attend every class and do not expect to do well if you do not attend lectures regularly.



The class web site is:

Your grade will be determined as follows:

Assignments (10% each):





Class participation



Assignments should be submitted electronically via TritonEd through Turnitin.

 A few rules:

You can contest the grading on your exams for up to five days after the assignments/exams were returned but only for two reasons:

1. there is a clerical error (we missed an answer or added your points up wrong)

2. you had the right answer and we failed to recognize that. (For the assignments, there will be parts where there are no correct answers. There we grade how articulate, thoughtful and creative those answers are.)

Clerical errors are simple: you bring your graded exam to me. I will check.

If you think we did not recognize a correct answer, you must send me an e-mail explaining why your answer is right and answers the question as stated on the exam sheet.

Please don't send me e-mails saying that "you feel you deserve more points" or that you think "your grade is unfair." Write a convincing argument proving that your answer is indeed correct. 

Please note that we don't discuss points, we discuss only the content of answers. If your answer is not correct, how many points we take off is not up for discussion.


All work must be yours. Plagiarism is a serious violation of university rules.

 Last rule:

The most common question I get in class is if the final exam is cumulative. Here is the answer:

Yes, it is cumulative but the emphasis will be on the material not covered by the midterm.

Please don't ask me this question again.


April 3

Introduction: The American Dream: Main Themes


Lecture notes #1

                                    Here is a recent article about what opinion polls say about the American Dream

(Here you can find more details) 

The American Dream Then

April 5

The Historical Roots of the American Dream

Joyless Puritanism and the American Dream

April 7

No Class

April 10

The American Dream from Below I 

Battles of the Little Guy



 Film: Modern Times (88 min) (directed by Charlie Chaplin) F= Feature Film

First Assignment: In about 200 words describe the plot of Modern Times with your own words. Choose one scene and explain what you find interesting about it.



April 12

The American Dream from Below II 

Precariousness of the American Dream


Lecture notes #2

Reading: Paul Krugman, The Conscience of a Liberal, Chapter 3, The Great Compression pp. 37-56

April 14

The American Dream from Above I 

The Battle of Giants

First assignment due and should be submitted electronically via TritonEd through Turnitin.

Film: Citizen Kane (119 min) (directed by Orson Welles) F

Did you notice something oddly familiar in the movie? Click here.


April 17

The American Dream from Above II 

Success vs. Happiness

Lecture notes #3


April 19

The  American Dream the Construction of Identity I

Race and Gender


Film: Imitation of Life (125 min) (directed by Douglas Sirk) F

Lecture Notes for Imitation of Life #3.5


April 21

The  American Dream the Construction of Identity II

Inclusion and Exclusion

Reading: Cynthia Deitch, Gender, Race, and Class Politics and the Inclusion of Women in Title VII of the 1964 CivilRights Act, Gender and Society


 April 24

The American Dream from the Outside I

Mafia and the American Dream


Film: Godfather Part II (200 min) (directed by Francis Ford Coppola) F

    April 26

The American Dream from the Outside II

Crime and Success



   April 28

The American Dream from the Outside II




Reading: Malcolm Gladwell, The Crooked Ladder, New Yorker August 11, 2014    

Lecture notes #4


May 1



You will need a blue book!

May 3

Immigration I

Who Do We Welcome?


Reading:  Ruben G. Rumbaut , Origins and Destinies: Immigration to the United States Since World War II, Sociological Forum, vol. 9, No. 4, Special Issue: Multiculturalism and Diversity. (Dec., 1994), pp. 583-621.

           Lecture notes #5  

Second Assignment: Take Rumbaut's article's short Conclusion. Re-write it in your own words. Make sure you include everything important and that you use your own words and sentence structures. Then take his Tables I, II and III. Pick one ethnicity (say, your own). Tell me what these three tables say about that ethnic group. About 2 pages.


The American Dream Now

 May 5

Immigration II

The Asian Experience


Film: Becoming American: The Chinese Experience Part III (by Bill Moyers) (82 min) D= Documentary  

Reading : Min Zhou, Are Asian Americans Becoming White? Contexts Feb 2004, Vol. 3, No. 1: 29-37.

Here is an article about Chinese parenting and "Tiger Mothers"

May 8

Immigration III

The Hispanic Experience

Second assignment due and should be submitted electronically via TritonEd through Turnitin.

Film: A Better Life (98 min) (directed by Chris Weitz) F


   Reading: Lee, Jennifer and Frank D. Bean, Americas hanging Color Lines, Immigration, Race/Ethnicity, and Multiracial Identification, Annual Review of Sociology, Vol. 30 (2004), pp.221-242.

Lecture notes #6


May 10

Social Class I

How to Think About the World of Social Inequalities


Film: People Like Us Parts I-IV (124 min) (by Louis Alvarez and Andrew Kolker) D


Lecture notes #7

Lecture notes #8


May 12

Social Class II

Trends of Inequality

Poverty Around America; Be Inspired To Make a Change In 2016

Reading :  Leslie McCall and Christine Percheski, Income Inequality: New Trends and Research Directions, Annual Review of Sociology 2010 

Wonderbread disappears from  Southern California -- The San Diego Union-Tribune, August 29, 2007

An excellent article on income inequalities in the US by Slate Magazine with links to important scholarly articles and great visuals

Warren Buffett (the 2nd richest person in the US), Stop Coddling the Super-Rich


May 15

Social Class III

Class in the Movies


Image result for Social Class

Film: Modern Times

Citizen Kane

Imitation of Life

Godfather Two

A Better Life

May 17

Social Mobility I



"This is a nice restaurant. Turn your cap around."

Reading: Emily Beller; Michael Hout, Intergenerational Social Mobility: The United States in Comparative Perspective, The Future of Children, Vol. 16, No. 2, Opportunity in America. (Autumn, 2006), pp. 19-36.


Lecture notes #9

May 19

Social Mobility II

Hollywood: The Dream Factory



Film: Pretty Woman (120 min) (by Garry Marshall) F


May 22

Consumerism I

Buying a Stairway to Heaven



"Anthropologist! Anthropologist!"



Modern Times


Godfather II


Pretty Woman

Reading: The New Politics of Consumption Debate in the Boston Review, Summer 1999, pp.1-26.


Lecture notes #10

Third assignment: Take one response to Schor's article from the reading. Explain in your own words what are the author's central claims, whether they agree or disagree with Schor and what your positions are on the issues. About 2 pages.


May 24

Consumerism II


May 26

Pursuit of Happiness I

Many Faces of Happiness


Film : Happy (72 min) (by Roko Belic) D

 Reading: Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly, If We Are So Rich, Why Aren t We Happy? pp. 821-7, American Psychologist, 1999

Third assignment due and should be submitted electronically via TritonEd through Turnitin.

May 29

Memorial Day Holiday


May 31

Pursuit of Happiness II

Can Money Buy Happiness?

Image result for Happiness Cartoon images New Yorker

"You want only happiness, Douglas. I want wealth, power, fame and happiness."

  Here is an article on happiness and winning the lottery


Reading : Kahneman, et al, Would You Be Halppier If You Were Richer, A Focusing Illusion. pp. 1908-10, Science, 2006



Lecture notes #11 

June 2

Pursuit of Happiness III

Freedom and Happiness

 Image result for Happiness Cartoon images New Yorker

"But remember, you're responsible for your own happiness."


Reading:  Schwartz, Tyranny of Choice, Scientific American, December 2004, pp.44-49

June 5

American Dream in the Cyber Age I

Cyber Dreams



'I'm also informed the deceased had over three thousand friends on Facebook.'

"I'm also informed the deceased had over three thousand friends on Facebook."


Film: Her (126 min) (by Spike Jonze) F

Lecture notes #12


June 7


American Dream in the Cyber Age II

Real and Virtual Lives

Reading: Manago and Vaughn, Social Media, Friendship, and Happiness in the Millennial Generation, pp.187-206 in D. Meliksah ed. Friendship and Happiness Across the Life-Span and Cultures, 2015



June 9



Image result for make America great again trump


Lecture notes #13

Additional Review Session:  Monday, June 11 , 1-5 pm  

SSB 401

FINAL EXAM:  Wednesday, June 14, 11:30-2:29, TBA

You will need a blue book!