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Case Study: Teaching with Prison Data in the Social Sciences

TUESDAY, NOV 05, 2019

“When you’re teaching courses in the social sciences, students often think, especially in Sociology, that everything is based on your opinion. I use Social Explorer in all my classes to show students how to use data to make informed arguments.”

– Jodie M. Lawston, Chair and Professor of Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies,  California State University San Marcos


A sociologist by training, Dr. Jodie M. Lawston is the Chair and Professor of Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at California State University San Marcos. She uses Social Explorer as a teaching tool to demonstrate the importance of evidence-based practice in the social sciences.

Social Explorer’s rich repository of datasets and easy-to-use mapping tools make complex issues less abstract for her students so that they can objectively grasp what’s going on in their communities and the world at large.


Dr. Lawston’s key concern has always been how to ground her students’ arguments and analysis in research and data. Having specialized in prison and immigrant detention, Dr. Lawston often discusses issues such as incarceration, immigrant detention, the death penalty, and political and social activism in her classes.

After hearing her students making casual remarks like ‘Everybody in prison is in prison for violent crimes’, Dr. Lawston felt the need to direct students toward the data on such topics and teach them to examine whether it supported their claims.

“For me, it’s really useful to dispel the myths that students come in with. Having something that allows them to go back with data and research and facts is really, really important,” said Dr. Lawston. Therefore, the challenge that Dr. Lawston faced was to find a user-friendly teaching tool for easily accessing and analyzing data in the classroom.


For Dr. Lawston, giving her students ‘more than somebody’s opinion or concept’ meant having the ability to illustrate the difference between an unsupported claim and a data-backed argument. Social Explorer’s rich data resources and easy-to-use mapping tools provided the ideal solution. 

Dr. Lawston was able to quickly and easily access the data that would ground her students’ views in research and help them make more informed arguments. For instance, she steered her students toward exploring datasets such as the percentage of the U.S. population in prison. Dr. Lawston’s students further examined the racial and ethnic makeup of this particular subset of the population. Through their use of Social Explorer, her students learned to think critically about such issues and make nuanced arguments with data, as well as acquire the requisite skills to do so.

This Social Explorer map shows the percentage of the population in prison by state (ACS 2017 5-Year Estimates). According to ACS data, an estimated 1.2 percent of the total U.S. population resides in adult correctional facilities. Click here to explore further.

Most recently, Dr. Lawston created a first-of-its-kind Introduction to Sociology digital textbook in association with Pearson Education Publishing. She incorporated Social Explorer into the narrative of the textbook, developing interactive exercises for students to help them absorb the learning content through practice. “My concern was how can I show them this data so that it’s more tangible to them,” said Dr. Lawston.

Dr. Lawston urges her students to look for patterns in the data, make comparisons, and visualize key data points on Social Explorer maps. She also engages her students to look at geographies that they are familiar with in order to personalize the results. Having access to prison data on Social Explorer compelled Dr. Lawston’s students to question their earlier assumptions and gradually adopt an inquiry-driven approach to learning.

These side-by-side maps illustrate the percentage of the African American population (Map 1) and Hispanic or Latino population (Map 2) incarcerated by state (ACS 2017 5-Year Estimates). According to ACS data, while West Virginia had the highest percentage of African American population in prison, Mississippi had the highest percentage of Hispanic or Latino population in prison. Click here to explore further.

Since most of Dr. Lawston’s students have limited experience in analyzing geospatial data and none at all when it comes to geocoding or data visualization, they highly value learning with Social Explorer’s easily accessible datasets and user-friendly mapping tools. Dr. Lawston considers the ability to learn and research with Social Explorer maps and data an empowering experience for her students.

See also: Teaching Sociology with Social Explorer

Author: Amrapali Saha

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