social theory is hard to teach
This week, I want to talk about why social theory is hard to teach. Among sociology courses, it’s probably the most demanding course, along with statistics and intro. Statistics is hard because sociology majors have poor math skills. The introductory sociology course is hard because there is no standard and you get a wide range of students, from scared freshmen to apathetic sixth year seniors.
Social theory is hard to teach for different reasons. First, many students are attracted to the topics of sociology (e.g., race) not the general idea of testing social theories. Thus, they simply lack the general language of social science. They don’t think in terms of variables, processes, and hypotheses. They think about a jumble of disconnected facts. Furthermore, lower division topics courses (e.g., crime or gender) rarely cast their topic in terms of general sociological arguments.
Second, social theory often comes at the end of the sociology major and is not integrated with the rest of the curriculum. Indiana, like many schools, allows students to postpone theory as long as they want. It is not considered a prequisite for many courses nor do programs require it as an entry point of the major. As one commenter noted, departments are scared of losing students. The result is that you get people who are exposed to theory as the last thing they do before graduation. They spend their whole career in topics courses that do not emphasize the basics of theory, the casting empirical topics as evidence for broader concepts. The implied message is that this course is hard and not terribly relevant. Not surprisingly, they are often puzzled about the goal of the course when they finally get to it.
Third, social theory is taught at an intellectual level that towers above most other sociology courses. To understand, say Weber’s, writings, you need to know history, have a broad vocabulary, and be able to read lengthy and complex sentences. The typical intro course often relies on streamlined textbooks. Lower division topics courses are often grounded in material that is fairly intuitive for most people. We shouldn’t be shocked when students just can’t deal with these books. It’s far above what we normally ask of them.
It is for these reasons that I think sociology should be required upon entry to the sociology major. We need to raise the reading level of majors and send a consistent message that sociology is not a bunch of topics, it’s a school of thought that isn’t different from any other science that compares theory with data.