the social theory course: motivations

Last week, I polled readers and asked: what is the point of the social theory course? By a wide margin, the answer was: ” introducing students to the major models and arguments of sociology.”

In this post, I’ll argue that our social theory courses do not fulfill that goal. Instead, we teach courses that seem to fulfill other goals. So let’s start – what are other course models? What goals to they have in mind?

  • History of sociological thought: In this model, the goal is to give people an overview of what has happened in sociology so far. You might teach the Chicago School or post-modernism, even if they aren’t defining paradigms of sociology.
  • Survey of interesting commentaries: In this model, social theory is a mix of regular science, cultural criticism, and philosophy. I teach from the Lemert anthology. A lot of reading are selected with this in mind. For example, a lot of the gender readings are from people like Virginia Woolf and Betty Friedan. Not sociologists, more like commentators.
  • Investigations of major theorists: Here, you assume that by immersing yourself in the ideas of major writers will lead to thinking like a social scientists. My graduate course was like that.
  • Greatest hits: Here, you toss in very well cited pieces. Maybe some Middletown, maybe some Goffman. Interesting, but disjointed, in my view.

One you write it out, you see that social theory courses are often taught in ways that do not convey models. Reading Weber in the original can be insightful, but it’s hard. Also, people get the wrong impression. When people think “sociology,” they think “old, great books.” That’s wrong. They should think: “Theory and empirical studies of social behavior.”

If you believe that social theory is about the models of social behavior that social scientists use, social theory should be the *first* course that sociology majors take. Not the last, as it is at many campuses. It should be a prerequisite for all upper level courses in sociology, as should basic research design. To do otherwise shows that we believe social theory is not a core topic in sociology. It’s something you take to round out your education.

The most popular answer in the poll, major models, got about 55%. Nothing else even came close. Assuming the poll captures the general drift of the sociological profession, it seems like the soc major should be standardized: intro (showing people what soc is about), then the trifecta of social theory/research design/intro stats, and then more advanced courses. Topical courses, of course, can be offered to non-majors.

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Written by fabiorojas

October 19, 2011 at 12:04 am

Posted in uncategorized

12 Responses

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  1. there’s a potential fear that if we make the intro courses “harder” (by having students think in terms of models and mechanisms instead of “lets talk about crime!” or “lets talk about gender!” or “lets talk about pop culture!”), students will be less likely to enroll.

    on the other hand, rigor doesn’t seem to stop social science from being the most popular major at Harvard or economics at Chicago – but then again Chicago and Harvard aren’t the same as (insert town) state university.



    October 19, 2011 at 12:21 am

  2. @andrew: That’s a fair concern. But I think there’s an easy solution – make the lower division courses the “let’s talk about crime/race/gender” courses. Intro can also be our enrollment booster. Then the upper division courses – aimed mostly at majors – should be core followed by advanced topics.



    October 19, 2011 at 12:55 am

  3. I’d also add a benefit to teachers: we would have classes with at least some people who have the basic social science perspective. You won’t have classes of seniors who have never heard of a t-test or a dependent variable.



    October 19, 2011 at 12:59 am

  4. I think your argument is consistent with Markovsky’s (2008) “Graduate Training in Sociological Theory and Theory Construction.” Although his argument focuses on graduate-level theory courses, I see no reason teaching the formal structure of a theory should not be extended to the undergraduate level.

    To that end, an instructor who is serious about teaching a social theory course about major models and arguments of sociology could start her students with Henry Walker’s (2002) “Three Faces of Explanation: A Strategy for Building Cumulative Knowledge.”



    October 19, 2011 at 2:46 am

  5. I go to BYU and in our sociology department, social theory classes are some of the first taught in the major. I heartily agree that theory classes are foundational. I am working on a publication with one of my professors and one of the concepts were are using in Bordeau’s “field” with respect to capital. Without my theory courses I would have had no idea what that meant. Teaching theory first can allow students to generate better, more publishable papers because they are familiar with some of the theories and paradigms either to critique or build off of.



    October 19, 2011 at 5:39 am

  6. I strongly recommend Jon Elster’s Nuts and Bolts as a guiding book for any theory course in sociology. You can use the classics (Weber Marx Tocqueville etc.) or more contemporary texts but the focus in every case should be on a methodological reading of texts, and in particular on mechanisms and theory building. Any good course in social theory should answer two basic questions:

    1. What is theory (and what it’s NOT)?
    2. What is social theory and how it’s applied in research?


    The Mechanic

    October 19, 2011 at 4:00 pm

  7. How about learning to think theoretically? In my mind that would include thinking with learned concepts, so students can see the world through sociological lens on one hand, and learning how to construct social theory (a la Stinchcombe, Abbott, etc.)



    October 19, 2011 at 4:07 pm

  8. I’m sorry I missed the original poll due to a very busy week last week. I don’t think the choices offered are particularly useful, as there are important linkages among them and the language used to describe them makes the “multiple models” selection sound the most serious. I think Bill’s point — “learning to think theoretically” — is the most important for undergraduate and graduate theory classes. That means including some of the classics in order to demonstrate the intellectual effects of beginning from relatively small differences in philosophical priors, even to demonstrate just that there are systematically distinct ways of seeing and categorizing the world.

    The multiple-models approach is great, but it lacks intellectual depth when it is presented as if the observation, categorization, and meaning of social life can be taken as a given.



    October 19, 2011 at 8:56 pm

  9. Fabio – it would be ideal to require theory and methods as prereqs prior to other classes, and this scheduling works well at institutions where most undergraduates are not transfers. However, it gets more difficult to sequence classes when undergraduates transfer from community colleges or other colleges – students need enough classes to get financial aid, students may be picking classes that are compatible with work schedules and commutes, and so forth. And, you may not necessarily want to lock out students from taking an upper division sociology class as an elective for “fun” (not sure if you’re thinking that a lower level topical course counts) or for a double major, etc. I’ve approached this issue by always teaching mini-sessions on particular theories and methods (reminders for those who have taken theory and methods already, an intro for those who haven’t had these yet) alongside substantive content in my upper division classes.



    October 19, 2011 at 10:41 pm

  10. I think there’s a real danger in theory classes of students missing the immediate applicability of “models,” “theories,” “sociological lenses,” etc. And once they tune out of the readings that are less intuitive or more arcane, it’s harder to see the genealogies of thought, the implicit jabs, reactionary ping-ponging, and other relational moves that make theory so rich and fun to read.

    I think theory classes should start from a kernel of social ontology. Theorists always have a particular idea of what social reality actually is — for example, Elster and the social mechanism school make a normative argument for a particular methodological approach based on strong ontological assumptions about how the world actually works. Rather than sweeping these under the rug and turning to unproblematic “mechanical” or “methodological” questions, theory classes should focus on the strong ontological claims theorists implicitly make, and bounce these recursively against the “naive” intuitions students carry with them as participants in this ontology.

    Bourdieu was famously skeptical of “theoreticist theory,” theory without an empirical mooring. While he always talked about “putting concepts to work,” espousing kind of a methodologistic philosophy of theory, I think he would also be skeptical of theory that didn’t have some kind of strong intuitive resonance with the theorist, that didn’t reflect a more arbitrary set of deep philosophical assumptions about the world. Nurturing a genuine passion for sociological theory requires, I think, finding theorists with consonant ontological assumptions.



    October 20, 2011 at 7:12 pm

  11. … ah, a trick question. Points were only awarded for agreeing with the prof. Been there; done that.


    Michael Marotta

    October 22, 2011 at 1:29 am

  12. […] Previously on orgtheory: The social theory poll/goals of the social theory course […]


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