orgtheory poll: the undergraduate social theory class

I’ve been the main undergraduate social theory teacher at Indiana since 2005. I’ve taught multiple sections every year that I’ve been in residence, until this year when we bundled everyone together into a lecture. Now that I’ve done it a bunch of times, both in seminar and large lecture format, I am now collecting my thoughts on the meaning of this course.

But first, what do you think should be the main goal of the course? And please, no namby pamby “these aren’t mutually exclusive, let’s all hold hands.” This is forced choice. Choose the most important goal of the undergraduate social theory course. I am also interested in why you chose it.

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Written by fabiorojas

October 13, 2011 at 1:33 am

18 Responses

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  1. I chose “insightful commentaries” because its seems to come closest to capturing the point of social theory more generally. Plus, its seems like an approach where some of the ideas might stick with some of the undergrads after the course ends.



    October 13, 2011 at 1:40 am

  2. As you may recall, I wrote a satire of “intellectual history” pedagogy a few years ago on our soc2econ April Fool’s blog.



    October 13, 2011 at 1:59 am

  3. It was actually a Contemporary Social Theory class that really got me interested in sociology. I transferred to my current university as a Psychology major but since the lower div pre-req’s took so long to get through I decided to take a few more sociology classes at this university just for the hell of it. I decided to pick up the double major but it wasn’t until being exposed to the different theorists and basically ways of viewing how society is structured on macro, meso and micro scales that I became hooked on sociology. It was social theory that presented sociology in a way to me that wasn’t just race/gender/stratification as it seems most people associate with sociology. In fact, one of my professors that I took a course with (prior to my theory course) basically revolved everything around race and it almost made me abandon sociology completely. It isn’t that race isn’t an important issue but it isn’t what interests me in sociology. In reality I know that it is probably 75% of the instructor that got me hooked on theory and 25% of content because it was the way he got me to think about the content that got me so intrigued. Plus, being taught his theory and reading his publications made the course even better. Reading published material from the person who teaches you is a pretty awesome thing coming from someone who had experience at a community college first. I continued onto take this same professors courses 4 more quarters in a row because of his charismatic presentation and the way he facilitated thought and alternative views in his students. Now I’m in my last year of my undergrad program and am applying to my grad schools. I am now going on trying to focus on social theory and I completely realize that it was all because of that first course I took with him. I know most of you on here are professors and maybe hearing this from an undergrad will give you satisfaction or reassurance about what you do but students do realize a good professor when they have one and (for me) coming across one that motivated me to think of life on a larger scale and more critically really refueled my motivation to learn. I continued on to do research with this professor and now we recently sent out a paper he gave me the opportunity to co-author with. Needless to say, social theory can be boring for a good number of undergrads but there are a handful that will fall in love with sociology because of it. Plus, once I got hooked and I started reading the books of the heavy hitters – weber, durkheim, marx, spencer, parsons, etc. I became exposed to facts about past societies (seeing as how some were like walking talking encyclopedias) that I would have never come across on my own and that has kept me even more fascinated by their work.



    October 13, 2011 at 3:21 am

  4. I went with “Other” so that I could take the namby pamby route. I am not convinced that these are rigorous categories.

    At Eastern Michigan, this is a 400-level class, so in fact, students have been “introduced” to the major theories several times. SOCL 100 at the community college began with the history of the theories. By the time you take a 300-level class, you are expected to be conversational about Structuralism and Functionalism, Weber and Merton, and maybe a half dozen theories and thinkers. Garfinkel was big in the 300-level Social Psychology class because of impression management . The Crim 300 class delivered Strain, Anomie, and other sociological explanations for crime.

    The SOCL 403 UG Theory class was called “Modern Sociological Theories” but was really “Traditional Sociological Theories” with lots of Weber and Merton, Whyte, the Lynds, and others, ending with post modernism the last week. That might seen deficiently midrange and midwestern, not the way of the Big Name Departments, except that later, in the graduate theory class, this fact came out:
    In most sciences, if you look at the citation index, you see that most papers cite recent research. Journal articles seldom rely on work more than five years old. Sociologists still begin their papers with citations to Weber, Marx, or some other venerated Name.

    So, my first choice is “Introducing students to the major models and arguments of sociology”
    That said, I do not see how to differentiate that from the history of sociological thought as these classes typically run in a chronological order to show the development of the science. Ultimately, then, although by the time sociology majors are sociology graduate students they have been through Parsons and Blau, Giddens, Habermas, and Bourdieu, and so many others that you think there is no end… but there is… there are fewer than 100. You could build a Periodic Table. It’s finite. So it is only an investigation of a handful of major social theorists like Weber or Durkheim .

    But I think the offering of ” … a survey of insightful commentaries about social life “ was whimsical, at best. The UG theory class is always more than that. These are not all just insightful commentaries, cogent though many such essays are. Many others are scientifically rigorous, especially the micro-level theories, the myriad minor papers that build the warehouse of reliable data. The Greatest Hits is just another way to say the same thing. That is why I question the rigor.


    Michael E, Marotta

    October 13, 2011 at 3:35 am

  5. I see that Undergrad got in ahead of me. Just to say, like him, I had most of my sociology course (five out of eight) with the same professor, Ron Westrum, a pioneer in complex organizations.


    Michael E, Marotta

    October 13, 2011 at 3:37 am

  6. The focus should be on Methodology. A good course should answer two basic questions:

    1. What is Theory? (and, most importantly, what it’s NOT) Why do we need it? Can we do without?
    2. What is Sociological theory? How is it different from other types of theories? How is it applied in sociological research?


    The Mechanic

    October 13, 2011 at 3:49 am

  7. I teach classic theory to undergrads, and I certainly think of its purpose as all of these choices. That said, I chose major models and arguments as the primary task since it’s really giving them the basics in paradigms so that students can situate other work within and against them.

    But I really like to think of theory and theorists as (paraphrasing Andy Abbott) ‘good to think with.’ So what really matters is how theory sparks our imagination and own theorizing, not whether a theorist/theory was right, wrong, relevant to today, sexist, old, useful, applicable, and so on.



    October 13, 2011 at 5:02 am

  8. “Introducing students to the major models and arguments of sociology”, no doubt. But then I would also prefer to name the course “sociological theory.” I think it happens too rarely that students are taught how to *build* theories, rather than just consume the theories of the past. We need to move forward, not (only) look backward. The fact that sociological theory is often taught as “history of sociological thought” is a symptom of the problems of our discipline. Do physics majors still read Newton?



    October 13, 2011 at 12:54 pm

  9. In my department, this course (and I have taught it) is intended to introduce students to Marx, Weber, Durkheim, and Simmel in order to give them a strong foundation for upper level sociology courses. I expanded it a little to include some of the founding texts of Western social theory, such as Hobbes and Locke, as well as some early writing by feminist and African-American sociologists. There is also an advanced course that covers more contemporary social theory. I like this approach because I think undergrads need to be exposed to these classic texts, and I agree with cwalken that these texts are good for students to think with because they contain/spark many of the major debates in sociological theory.



    October 13, 2011 at 1:53 pm

  10. “Introduction to a Handful of Major Theorists” was my vote. I’m referring to “Classical Sociological Theory” courses, where the purpose is to give students a solid understanding of those fundamental thinkers. But I think part of the value of the course is that those scholars were more clearly dealing with issues that are still important, but less clearly addressed by more recent theorists, such as modernization, urbanization, and individual/society. They were more interested in forming a picture of society as a whole than later theorists were, and were dealing with many of the same questions. Certainly the course an feel repetitive at times–how much Marx does a student really need–but if students are left with a solid foundation in those thinkers then the course has done its job.


    Eric Titus

    October 13, 2011 at 2:09 pm

  11. Our graduate program begins with “contemporary theory” rather than classical theory with an eye to getting students up to speed as quickly as possible with what’s going on in sociology right now. I think a similar approach would work well for undergrads who are usually very concerned with “relevance.” Reading theory chronologically is an interesting exercise in intellectual history, but often means a lot of walks down dead-end alleys. If the goal for undergraduate (sociology) education is to provide students with a sociological lens through which to view the world, applying contemporary theory to contemporary social issues can be both enlightening and engaging.



    October 13, 2011 at 2:45 pm

  12. Hello,

    I am an undergrad at UCSC, and here we split up soc theory into two main components, both required upper division classes: classic and contemporary. The first, classical sociological theory, touches very briefly on Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, in order to contextualize the dialogue between them and following thinkers. We start with a bit of de Toqueville and then go right into Marx. In the undergrad version, we do not approach Marx from Hegel, so we skip a lot of his early work. Tucker’s reader or selections make up the bulk of material. Of course, Weber and Durkheim come after Marx, and then given time, Simmel, maybe Dubois depending on the teacher.

    I enjoyed my undergrad theory course so much, and after taking the upper div core theory courses for fem studies, and anthro, I asked to attend the graduate level course, so I am currently taking that course, (which is so incredibly fulfilling and wonderful) so I can compare the two.

    At our school, I have found that the main goal is to illuminate the initial arguments which many modern theorists are in dialogue with, either directly or indirectly. (so Answer #2)

    In the fem theory course I took, the approach was to disregard canon and dive right in, and I found that compared to other students in the class, I was in fact much better prepared to engage the material because even though many of the theorists did not directly address those classic thinkers, I could see who these modern feminists were addressing in some of their arguments, or who they were implicitly referencing. And of course, it would be pretty hard to engage mid/contemporary theorists such as the Frankfurt school thinkers without having first read Marx.

    In general, the undergrad course was like reading the table of contents to a really good book, but not reading the actual book. The grad course has opened up to me the magnificence of these thinkers. Listen, first time around, I didn’t like Marx until the end of the class. Last week I did a close read of Wage Labor & Capital, took 9 pages of notes, broke down the economic argument. I am finding that this is a thinker who is just not really appreciable without a deeper examination. Some of the people here have taught him for years, are well past my initial amazement, I get how this can seem like a waste of time, especially given the preponderance of information that is being generated *right now.*

    But teaching young consumer culture raised kids about Marx may be the most important thing you do as a sociologist as far as impact goes. Because it’s the entree into thinking systematically and critically about the most fundamental aspects, which are presented without their consent as a fait accompli, of the society they live in today.

    Sorry if I sounded a little preachy, I just love what I am doing right now. I am in my 30’s, returning to finish my degree (after dropping out many years ago to join a rock band, heh) and stretching it out as long as possible. :) My approach to university with my current perspective has made it a truly amazing experience, and I care deeply about my discipline and how it is taught. Have a good one, and thanks for fostering this dialogue. As a person who hopes to one day be teaching this material, I really appreciate this type of conversation. Now I am going to go back to reading Capital as I have a paper due soon.


    Sammy the Slug is my mascot:sigh

    October 13, 2011 at 8:05 pm

  13. The thing that’s hard for me about this is that I think it does depend on the structure of the curriculum in a particular place. Where the curriculum provides space for two theory courses, a classical and a contemporary, I think that the history of sociological thought becomes more important as a purpose–and it’s easier to accomplish some of the other key purposes (introduction to models etc.) within that framework. I also think the history of sociological thought is the key purpose for graduate-level theory classes. But in undergraduate programs with just one course, which seems fairly typical, then I think there is not enough time to provide a true history of sociological thought especially if there are any other coverage goals, and I’d rather see an introduction to models. Really, though, I think there is another purpose to theory classes that was not among the choices, which is to introduce students to theoretical thinking and model-building.



    October 14, 2011 at 1:11 pm

  14. I chose other. I have shamelessly adapted a core social science course offered at UChicago. My course focuses on three commonplaces – the economy, hierarchy, and religion – and three corresponding themes – wealth, power, and virtue. I kick the course off with Hobbes’s problem of order. Each component then takes up a related theme. The problem of economic cooperation covers Smith, Marx, and Durkheim. The problem of power covers Marx, Weber, Dubois, Dorothy Smith, Milgram, Blau, Goffman, and Foucault. The problem of meaning covers Durkeim, Weber, Mead, Berger and Luckmann, Goffman, Geertz, and Swidler.


    Fabio's classmate

    October 16, 2011 at 1:31 am

  15. Social theory has no serious analytic, and classes in social theory tend to be little more than a history of ideas in my experience, I say this as a student of both Economics and Sociology (a ‘double major’).

    Someone made an excellent point above that social theory doesn’t really give you the tools to analyse society, it does not enable you to build any serious ‘models’. I’d go as far as to say that it’s radically out of date and out of touch.

    What social theory needs is mathematical models and cognitive science, the later inparticular I think is revealing a lot about human behaviour and the ‘social’, more than Gramsci, Anthony Giddens, Harbemas et al ever did.

    I’ve always found ‘contemporary sociological theorists’ to be engaging in a highly esoteric form of cultural criticism, now I agree this can be interesting, but it is hardly scientific. For me, some of the best social theorists out there are Scott Atran and Herb Gintis.



    October 16, 2011 at 2:42 pm

  16. Jon, if you want to downgrade Habermas, I would suggest you learn how to spell his name!



    October 17, 2011 at 12:07 pm

  17. […] week, I polled readers and asked: what is the point of the social theory course? By a wide margin, the answer was: ” […]


  18. […] on orgtheory: The social theory poll/goals of the social theory […]


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