SOC 172


 Prof. Akos Rona-Tas


2019 Winter


The American Dream through Films

CSB 004



SSB 488

T Th 3:30-4:50


Office hours:



TTh 10:30-11:20



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 success through hard work, courage and determination. The American Dream is supposed to unite our diverse society through a set of common beliefs and goals. Using feature and documentary 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. The films will serve as springboards to understanding general social processes in American society.


American Dream



There will be 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.

In this class, we will use Top Hat. That carries a $26 fee. The Join Code is 255358.


The class web site is:

Your grade will be determined as follows:

Assignments (10% each):

Midterms (15% 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 is no correct answer. There we grade you on how articulate, thoughtful and creative your answer is.)

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 whether exams are cumulative. Here is the answer:

Yes, they are cumulative but the emphasis will be on the material not covered by earlier exams.

Please don't ask me this question again.





January 8


The American Dream: Main Themes

The Historical Roots: Joyless Puritanism and the American Dream

  American Dream

Lecture notes #1

                                    Here is a recent opinion poll about the American Dream

And here is another one

The American Dream Then

January 10

The American Dream from Below 

Battles of the Little Guy and the Precariousness of the American Dream

Charlie Chaplin                   

Lecture notes #2

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

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. Then choose one scene and explain what you find interesting about it. Are there any people of color in this movie? How are women portrayed?

January 15

The American Dream from Above I 

The Battle of Giants

Success vs. Happiness

                                           W.R. Hearst                                           Orson Welles

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

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

Lecture notes #3


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

                January 17

The American Dream from the Outside II

Mafia and the American Dream

Crime and Success


Al Pacino                         Real Mafiosi

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



   January 22

The American Dream from the Outside II



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


Lecture notes #4





January 24

The  American Dream the Construction of Identity

Race and Gender

Inclusion and Exclusion

Imitation of Life

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

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

Lecture Notes for Imitation of Life #3.5

The American Dream Now

January 29

Immigration I

Who Do We Welcome? 

Asian Americans                             Danger

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

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.

 January 31

Immigration II

The Asian and Hispanic Experience

A Better Life                     

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

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

  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.

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

Lecture notes #6

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


February 5                                                                 Midterm 1

Bring a bluebook


 February 7

Social Class I

How to Think About the World of Social Inequalities


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

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

 Lecture notes #7

Lecture notes #8

February 12

Social Class II

Trends of Inequality

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

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

Film: Modern Times

Citizen Kane

Imitation of Life

Godfather Two

A Better Life


February 14

Social Mobility I

Opportunities and Outcomes


"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

February 19

Social Mobility II

The African American Experience

Hoop Dreams

Film: Hoop Dreams (by Steve James, Fred Marx, Peter Gilbert) (171 min) D

Reading: Bart Landry and Kris Marsh, The Evolution of the New Black Middle Class, The Annual Review of Sociology, Vol. 37, (2011), pp. 373–94

Here is an article about where Gates and Agee are today

Here is another article on the health costs of upward mobility

February 21

Consumerism I


From Puritanism to Consumerism


"Anthropologist! Anthropologist!"


Modern Times


Citizen Kane


Godfather II


Imitations of Life

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 the author’s central claims are, whether they agree or disagree with Schor and what your positions are on the issues. About 2 pages.

February 26

Consumerism II

Buying a Stairway to Heaven

Midterm 2

This is going to be only a 45 minute midterm in the second part of the class.

Bring a bluebook!

February 28

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.


March 5

Pursuit of Happiness II

Can Money Buy Happiness?

Freedom and Happiness

"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 Happier If You Were Richer, A Focusing Illusion. pp. 1908-10, Science, 2006

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

Lecture notes #11


March 7

American Dream in the Cyber Age

Cyber Dreams: Real and Virtual Lives

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

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

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


  March 12 American Dream in the Cyber Age
Lecture notes #12   Race, Ethnicity and Gender in the Cyber Age

   Reading: Gonzales, Amy L. "Disadvantaged minorities’ use of the Internet to expand their social networks." Communication Research 44, no. 4 (2017): 467-486.


March 14


Lecture notes #13  


Final Exam

March 19

3:00-5:59 pm