social theory is hard to teach

Previously on orgtheory: The social theory poll/goals of the social theory course

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.

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Written by fabiorojas

October 25, 2011 at 12:32 am

9 Responses

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  1. I agree with this. Theory is one of the hardest courses (not only for instructors but students), and its level of challenge is far beyond the average sociology topical course.

    When I teach theory, I’m amazed that students, even very bright ones, have a hard time locating the things they already know about sociology in relation to the major theorists and paradigms. For example, they don’t see that critical theory perspectives are related to Marxism or that work on contextual explanations of individual experience owe a debt to Weber. I could go on…

    So, yes, we should be teaching sociology in the sociology major. But I think the solution is not to have a grand theory course earlier, but to embed all topics in terms of their theoretical lineage and contribution. The air in the sociology classroom should always be about both theory and evidence, so that the sociology student has no choice but to breathe it.



    October 25, 2011 at 1:47 am

  2. “The air in the sociology classroom should always be about both theory and evidence, so that the sociology student has no choice but to breathe it.”

    Ummm… this sounds like theory is a form of capital punishment…

    On a serious note, I wouldn’t suggest making theory a lower division course. Rather, it would be the gateway to a larger set of upper division courses. You’d start with intro or maybe some topics, then you get theory. As it stands in many programs, theory is taken in the senior year. What’s the point of that?



    October 25, 2011 at 1:52 am

  3. Perhaps we can look to the example of other social science disciplines? Or maybe not, if they have the same problems as well. I mean, I’ve heard that in economics they leave math out until the end, so there’s that. I don’t know about political science.

    I do remember that Brad DeLong said that economics often serves to confirm the basest prejudices of right-wingers while sociology serves a similar function for left-wingers. Of course, that need not be the case. I think sociology does have a reputation in that regard (the impression out there I get from some people is that you go into sociology if you want to become a social worker and help disadvantaged people).

    Perhaps putting in statistics more early on as well as challenging students to explicitly think about mechanisms when they write papers (so they can’t get away with just using a few buzzwords like “race” or “stratification” or “socialization” in essays in order to fake actual thinking, for example) would help



    October 25, 2011 at 3:05 am

  4. my school does theory as a prerequisite course to most other courses but not all. The latest someone could postpone theory is two semesters before graduation. I’m a junior and am finishing up my second theory class and honestly it’s been really beneficial in my other classes and research I’ve been involved in. I definitely feel that theory is conceptually harder than any of my other classes (we’re covering postmodernism and poststructuralism right now). I think there should be some topic courses that don’t require theory so that students can take the classes that get them excited about sociology, and some topic courses that do require theory so that students can see how important theory is in research and how it applies to the topic courses. Having a lecture or two about how theory connects in each topic course would be very beneficial as well



    October 25, 2011 at 3:25 am

  5. I fully agree, from my own experience, that teaching sociological theory is hard. But at least one of teh problems above can be solved: Someone should write a decent and streamlined textbook for sociological theory. Unless, of course, you insist on teaching the classics from the original texts but then I think you’re only making it hard on yourself. Again, classic natural science models aren’t taught with Newton and Darwin’s original texts in hand!



    October 25, 2011 at 11:27 am

  6. “Again, classic natural science models aren’t taught with Newton and Darwin’s original texts in hand!”

    Depends. In my high school we did. It was great training for college, BTW.



    October 25, 2011 at 3:45 pm

  7. My department requires two semesters of theory (in sequence) and two semesters of methods (in sequence); all must be completed before taking senior seminar, though not before taking upper-level topics courses. Another approach I have heard of that might work is requiring a 200-level course after intro but before moving into major courses called something like “the sociological perspective” that introduces students to theorizing, the research process, etc.



    October 26, 2011 at 3:44 am

  8. @Guillermo: really? Wow. Do you feel it made you a better physicist?



    October 26, 2011 at 7:35 am

  9. I think it’s important to read theorists directly. Our ‘canon’ exists not because the theorists were right, not just because they influenced whole lines of thought later, but because they’re ‘good to think with’.

    I get so much out of teaching classic theory because it’s the only time I revisit the classics directly. And when you do that, 10 years after first reading Marx or Weber or Durkheim, you see so much more than you first did, you begin to doubt conventional interpretations of the authors, and you start having new research ideas.

    Maybe that doesn’t happen with Newton or Darwin, but it certainly happens in sociology (we even have a whole journal devoted to it–the Journal of Classical Sociology). As for the other social sciences, maybe they should be reading their classics, too.



    October 26, 2011 at 5:55 pm

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