5 Best Sociological Documentaries: Analysis and Examples

Introduction: Documentaries offer an audio-visual look into the discipline of sociology which allows for an intimate understanding of the subject, in a way that text often can not. Sociological documentaries are accessible and enjoyable to both individuals pursuing their education in the field, as well as to those who have a more casual interest in sociology. However, documentaries are oftentimes concerned with presenting the most shocking aspects of society to intrigue the viewer, without offering much academic context to tie it back to the field of sociology. This list suggests interesting documentaries paired with a simple sociological analysis of the themes covered in the documentaries.

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  1. The Mask You Live In

Synopsis: The Mask You Live In, released in 2015 and directed by Jennifer Siebel Newsom. This documentary primarily focuses on the pressures of toxic masculinity on young boys and men influenced by media, culture, family, and peers. It tries to show that a males personality is mainly developed through these narrow and toxic notions of gender stereotypes manifested and presented in a variety of ways. The director attempts to personally expose society as a trigger that almost forces men to use force and violence to deal with issues while remaining emotionless. It uses the perspective of men from different backgrounds to portray the way one’s identity, race or class influences the pressures of being a “man”. This is simultaneously paired with criticism from experts in sociology, psychology, sports, and education providing both evidence and a possible solution to tackle this everlasting issue.

Sociological analysis of themes & examples from the documentary: Goffman’s dramaturgy theory compares life to a stage or a play, wherein individuals must play various roles. Depending on the stage (ie. the situation) and audience, individuals wear one of many masks and perform the appropriate role (ie. interact and behave). The documentary is likely named after the aforementioned ‘masks’ that individuals are expected and choose to wear. The dramaturgical theory is a theory of socialization and identity, it explains the way in which individuals inculcate social norms and beliefs while forming a self and outward identity.

Another sociological concept that is centred around performance and identity is gender.  This concept states that gender, as opposed to being an innate concept, is one that individuals are constantly performing, in the way one looks, talks, behaves, etc. this concept of doing gender is what Goffman calls impression management- choosing which mask to wear according to what is expected. For example, masculinity in America is characterised by a number of traits most notably being a man means not showing emotion. And so the documentary showcases instances wherein they needed to pretend to be unaffected by emotionally traumatic instances. Hence, men have to wear a mask that is unemotional and strong in order to do their gender, ie. in order to be perceived as men. The concept of doing gender in regards implies that if a man is not constantly proving their gender then he is not a man.

Where to watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k4yFShxUb2E&t=45s

2. India Untouched: Stories of a People Apart

Synopsis: India Untouched: Stories of a People Apart, is a 2007 documentary about caste and untouchability in contemporary India. Filmed over the course of four years, the director- Stalin. K, showcases the discrimination experienced by Dalit people, such as bring pre-assigned to perform unsafe menial labour or drink water from separate taps.

Modern India may pretend that untouchability and caste discrimination is a practice of the past, or that it is reserved for only the most backward areas. However, this documentary highlights all the overt and implicit ways in which caste discrimination is upheld all over India, and exists in all major religions practised in India.

Sociological analysis & examples: According to Durkheim, religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, uniting into a single moral community that all adhere to those beliefs and practices. Hence the shared belief of the sacred and conversely the profane is a binding aspect of religion. This is true for all religious institutes including Hinduism, wherein untouchable and Dalit people are considered ‘profane’ and are considered to ‘pollute’ upper-caste people. The existence of hierarchical positions within religion is referred to as religious stratification

Logically there is no reason behind what is considered profane and sacred, that is why religion affects socio-cultural institutions and the socialization process. For example, the documentary opens on a group of children who are standing outside a Dalit women’s house. These children are asked if they want to go inside her home, to which they all scream “NO ”. When asked why they do not seem to have an answer, they say that if they go inside her house they will be polluted but none of the children are able to explain why this would occur, nor do they know how they know this. The socialization process, that is the process of normalising and internalising cultural norms and beliefs. This belief in the sacred and the profane has not been explicitly taught to them, but instead, they have all been implicitly socialised into internalising these beliefs. While Durkheim believed that religion causes social cohesion, other famous sociologists like Karl Marx, believe that religions exist not to fulfil any good but to cause social stratification, to maintain inequality just as capitalism does.

Where to watch:https: //www.youtube.com/watch?v=fvke6ycgkL4&t=7s

3. The Shock Doctrine

Synopsis: Adapted from Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine provides a perspective from one of the leading thinkers in anti-capitalist movements. This documentary brings to light the reality of America’s free-market policies – set in place to both dominate and exploit people in times of disaster or shock. Events such as natural disasters, war, or terrorist attacks create mass shock and sensory deprivation amongst the public. These are taken advantage of to impose economic control – also referred to as “economic shock therapy”. Hence the source of shock almost acts as a source of distraction or rationalization. Extensive historical research amongst disaster zones reveals the corporate reset of society using “shock treatment” discovered by the Chicago School under Milton Friedman. Through the application of these ideas, the documentary follows disasters that have proven to be deliberate attempts to impose the shock doctrine worldwide.

Sociological analysis and examples: Social change is a cornerstone of sociology, in fact the discipline initially began as a tool to analyse the changes occurring in European society during the industrial revolution. Social change is marked by a change in social structures resulting in a change in society. The cause of social change throughout history is debated, for example, according to Conflict theory as proposed by Marx, change is the result of two conflicting groups fighting for power ie. the means of production. While structural-functionalist, change in one social institute creates change in another, as all social institutes are considered to be interlinked.

The documentary however offers a theory more in line with a social psychological theory called the Milgram theory. This theory states that ordinary people are likely to follow authoritarian figures regardless of negative consequences. This is further paired by a statement repeated in the documentary ‘​​“Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. Hence, this documentary analysis the link between obedience towards authorial figures and the effects of a shock to create social and economic change.

Where to watch the trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yR_LpahqPfI

4. The Stanford Prison Experiment

Synopsis: The Stanford Prison Experiment is one of the most infamous social psychology experiments of the 20th century. Taking place in 1971 at Stanford University and conducted by psychologist- Philip Zimbardo, the experiment r studied the effects a recreated prison environment had on the participants. Most notably looking at how social roles, norms and group identity affected human behaviour and psychology. twenty college students were selected and were randomly divided into the role of prisoner and inmate. Though the study was intended to be carried out over the course of two weeks it was cut short on day six due to the brutality carried out by the acting prison guards, and other ethical concerns.

Sociological analysis and examples: Social psychology is a subfield of both psychology and sociology, this discipline is concerned with the effects the environment (ie. culture) has on human behaviour. Groups exist to fulfil an expressed purpose, according to this purpose individuals take on certain positions within the group. This position is referred to as social roles and is expressed through behaviour, the role one plays is based to fit the expectations both individuals have of themselves as well as fit the expectations others of the group have on the individual. If everyone is able to adapt to their roles based on the norms set by the group, then there can be social cohesion. The Stanford prison experiment is the penultimate example of the power expected social norms and roles can affect an individual’s behaviour. While none of the participants had any prior predisposition to their assigned role of inmate or prison guard, each participant fell into their role almost immediately.

Disciplines such as psychology or sociology can benefit immensely from performing experiments, however, these experiments must follow a pre-established code of ethics; a code of ethics refers to formal guidelines for conducting research, consisting of principles and ethical standards concerning the treatment of human individuals. While the data collected may be invaluable to its field, this data cannot be attained at the cost of harming the individuals who participate. Consent is key when performing an experiment, and violating the terms of consent is violated the experiment can be deemed void and e redacted. For example, in reference to the Stanford prison experiment, while participants gave their consent to participate in a two-week-long experiment at Stanford University in California, they did not consent to be picked up publically and ‘arrested’ from their homes. This including a number of other violations has resulted in many academics critiquing the validity of the experiment.

Where to watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F4txhN13y6A

Also Read: 5 Movies with Sociological Analysis

5. The 13th

Synopsis: The 13th is a Netflix documentary released in 2016 and directed by Ava Duverney provides an in-depth view and analysis of the American prison system that functions to propagate racial inequality till the present time. The documentary delves into the true nature of the 13th amendment –  “ Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude except as a punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist”. Hence Duverney provides increasing evidence of the loophole that allows people in power to dominate and enslave people of colour through the excuse of crime. The US makes up for 5% of the global population but over 25% of global prisoners; mainly consisting of African Americans. The documentary contrasts history such as the Jim Crow Laws with the use of free labour under the prison system to justify that over-imprisonment of black individuals is another word for slavery, existing under the name of “justice”.

Sociological analysis and examples: Social stratification is the system by which society categorises people and ranks them in a hierarchy. If one were to consider society to resemble the ranks of a ladder, wherein higher rungs represent higher in the hierarchy; then the position an individual has in society is dependent on the factors which society deems important. These are a multitude of factors, including race, gender, wealth and wealth, education, caste, etc. stratification is affected by the historical context of the society being discussed, hence when considering America, one needs to acknowledge the history of slavery which still affects race relations to this day.

The United States of America has the highest incarceration rate in the world, of its 2 million incarcerated adults, over 70% are African American. In 2021, over-policing and police brutality towards individuals belonging to black communities are well known (reference. Black Lives Matter Movement). This racist system can be understood through social stratification. The 13th acknowledges the effects of history, including slavery, racial segregation, the ‘war on crime’, on today’s justice system, but focuses largely on the reality inside prisons, as this is an aspect that is often hidden from the public.

Social stratification and capitalism are two social systems that co-exist. In India, its manifestation is more apparent, as one caste (a factor of social stratification) is directly linked to their occupation within a capitalist society. Those who exist in the lower strata of society are more likely to be exploited under capitalism. Inmates, who are stripped of nearly all of their human and civic rights, fall at the bottom of the social ladder, and hence experience significant exploitation. This is highlighted in the documentary through the discussion of privatised labour within prisons, the documentary goes on to explain this exploitation by comparing it to Jim Crow laws.

Where to watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=krfcq5pF8u8

These are 5 sociological Documentaries, Could you like to suggest some more?

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Natasha D'Mello is currently a communications and sociology student at Flame University. Her interests include graphic design, poetry and media analysis.