social theory undergrads

Why is social theory hard for students? After teaching many sections, I offer a few answers to this question. This is based on teaching a lot of public university students, many of whom postpone theory until the bitter end.

  1. The difficulty level of the readings is far beyond what is normally encountered in other courses. Compare a passage from Durkheim or Weber with what you find in an intro text or an anthology of readings on race, and you’ll see what I mean.
  2. Many students in sociology class don’t have an interest, or express an interest, in current events, history, philosophy, or other topics that would lead them to think a lot about the social world in a systematic way.
  3. A lot of courses are topical in orientation. Thus, there is no systematic discussion of dependent/independent variables, social processes, and so forth. In a lot of big public schools, social theory is a weird stand alone course. It is not integrated with others.
  4. Social theory books themselves present a problem. Finding a connection between empirical topics and social theories is hard.

One might interpret this post as a complaint against the buffet style sociology major, where students just take a bunch of disconnected courses. That is correct. At many programs, including my own, there is no logical sequencing of courses. Students take intro or social problems, then topics, and then a little stats and theory. Thus, there is no cultivation of systematic thinking.

Another interpretation is that sociology attracts the wrong kind of student. If there are not an appreciable number of students with a strong knowledge of current events, history, or other fields that would facilitate learning social theory, then it means we’re failing to attract these students.We have to do a better job getting the most engaged social science students.

Social theory instructors, please leave your comments.

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Written by fabiorojas

March 7, 2012 at 12:05 am

13 Responses

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  1. A lot of students just aren’t motivated to understand the material because they don’t think it really matters. My current professor in Classical theory does a great job at relating the material to current events. In fact, he often pulls up news articles and will discuss what some editor is talking about and then ask the class what that sounds like. Because he is a great professor (in my opinion) students are able to pick out different parts of editorials and recognize things Weber talks about our Durkheim, etc etc. There is a huge divide in students though in terms of their motivations. Most students aren’t intrinsically motivated to grasp the material, they just want to pass the class and I don’t think there is anything you are going to do about that to get them to like theory. Throughout my undergrad I often created little study groups to help other people learn the material (I do this because teaching it to them solidifies my knowledge). What I find is that I, more or less, am able to create examples that they can store in their head about different concepts. It is really about presenting the material in a dumbed down way of examples. It is also about making sure that people know what you are talking about; I’ve noticed a lot of students must be completely lost because they don’t even understand the most basic of concepts. Recently, I had a study group and was explaining mechanical vs. organic solidarity and after about 15 minutes of talking one of the girls asked me what the division of labor was. At that point I realized that so much of what is talked about and what I’m referring must be completely over her head. Maybe professors don’t make sure everyone is on the same page in the beginning of class? Maybe people just aren’t coming to class or aren’t doing the readings? Sometimes they might take for granted how much certain students know and/or how far along they are in their coursework. It is really about motivation though. People, I find, just aren’t motivated for various reasons. Some people are naturally inquisitive and love theory because of that; I was drawn to sociology from psychology because of the questions that are asked in social theory courses. It also has to do with having a great professor. The professor needs to be able to relate the material to every day scenarios that people can play in their heads as they write their papers and take their exams. The way I help out people I study with is to create stories about every concept we go through. Some people can’t handle the abstract nature of it, others just don’t care and won’t care. It’s unfortunate in my opinion because out of my entire undergrad I haven’t been in a single discussion or study group with someone else that really loved theory courses. Most people tend to avoid them because it’s not a traditional “here are the facts, remember these numbers and spit them back out on a multiple choice test.” As a student, my word advice might be to see what is important to your students and then create examples relating to them. If it is a religious university, apply things to religious situations; if it is a party school then relate it to some kind of social situation or relationships etc. I had one professor that did an outstanding job with this. I took multiple courses with him because he knew how to relate to his audience. Oh, and as theory courses move on I think it is also beneficial to do quick recaps periodically. Keep relating things you are currently talking about to what you talked about weeks ago because at some point if you never talk about what you covered the first 2 weeks it will tend to slip out of their mind and then when they go to study they’re going to have a hard time separating who said what. Anyways, I really do believe though that some people will like it and some won’t and there is little that can be done to make them LIKE it but some things can be done to make them understand it a little better.



    March 7, 2012 at 1:20 am

  2. perhaps we should create dual-track sociology majors. as of now sociology majors are defined by “concentration,” usually a topical one (race, class and gender; crime and deviance; etc.). i suggest that we split the sociology degree between a ‘normal’ and ‘accelerated’ track.

    By accelerated I mean that the course readings would be more difficult (more original texts of classics, reading journal articles from ASR, AJS, etc.), teachers would be more demanding both in workload and grading, and the classroom pedagogy itself might be structured around seminars in which students are nearly forced to do readings and think about them seriously since they must contribute ideas and defend them in discussions.

    The “normal” track would be your typical sociology major in which people take a bunch of topical stuff with watered down methods and theory so that stuff will actually stick – furthermore, the methods and theory courses will not be stand-alone but perhaps might be emphasized much more throughout the topical courses in small mouthfuls.

    Where does my inspiration for this come from, especially the “accelerated” track? Brad Delong lovingly talked about his experience in the demanding Social Studies major when he was at Harvard. I would have loved to have been in a program like that (though I had several teachers I loved and took multiple courses with during undergrad – the problem was that not all professors and courses were as intellectually demanding and stimulating). Obviously there is an audience out there for students who want much more rigorous study, as Brad Delong noted that the social studies major was very popular since the Harvard students love anything that is perceived as challenging and thus prestigious. But he noted that the major was appealing in itself.

    Prof. Rojas talked in the past about who sociology seems to draw in students that are either weak or weak in math, are drawn in by the “pop social science”/Freakonomics character of some topical courses, or are drawn in by the impression that sociology is all about social justice advocacy.

    We don’t want to push all these students away just on pragmatic grounds – I heard from a professor that sociology often is looked upon favorably by deans because they draw in large numbers of students in their classes due to the interesting topical classes.

    Since the large classes of 500 people on [popular topic] are essential for the survival of sociology departments everywhere, lets keep them. But if we want sociology to reproduce itself in ways that will ensure long-term professional health, we need to draw in stronger students. I see the dual-track sociology major as a way of retaining the large class enrollments while also giving sociology a reputation as a rigorous social science.

    In my view, the “accelerated” track would involve much more in-depth theory courses as well as more of them, and also integrate theory and methods much more into the topical courses. Just my 2 cents…



    March 7, 2012 at 3:19 am

  3. Prof. Rojas – if you’ve talked about this in the past, then forgive me – but do people you know in other social science disciplines (economics, political science) also report that their students dislike theory and/or exhibit an inability to learn it?



    March 7, 2012 at 3:30 am

  4. A variation on your point (1): the social theory class I took as an undergraduate included a lot of classic texts (from Marx to Adorno to Habermas) that are really hard to understand if you don’t know much about the history of philosophy, especially Kant and German Idealism. Everyone who wasn’t also a philosophy major struggled to get anything out of the texts.

    I don’t know if our syllabus was typical. But certainly in classes like that, a major stumbling block can simply be lack of adequate preparation and context.



    March 7, 2012 at 4:13 am

  5. I am not an instructor, but I do tutor our “Sociological Theory” course at my college, so I have some thoughts. The biggest difference between what the professor teaches in the classroom and what I do as a tutor, is that I tend to focus on reinforcing definitions and making connections between them and less on how the theory connects to either current issues or historical contexts. The reason for this is that while in class the discussion is about the historical context of the theory, on tests (almost always essays or short answer) the focus is often on connecting the theories to previous ones or applying a specific part of them to a real world example. As a result, definitions become very important on tests, even though the in-class focus is on historical context and understanding the theory as a part of a larger body of work. I think this disconnect is why theory is difficult for students (although, I would argue that it is not necessarily the fault of the instructor but the nature of how we create tests).


  6. The fun courses pay the bills and account for whatever competitive advantage soc has over other majors. If we depended on social theory courses to attract students there’d be as many ads for sociology positions as there are for languages or classics.

    Let’s not overthink it. The material is hard. But with guidance most students usually can connect the dots, especially if (as pointed out above) the instructor makes an effort to link the concepts made up by the dead people to contemporary concerns. Here’s a good example:



    March 7, 2012 at 1:32 pm

  7. When I teach theory to undergrads, I often attempt to link the classics to contemporary or at least fairly recent events. However, I’m often taken aback by how little many sociology majors know/care about contemporary politics, current social issues, or history, and this certainly affects how well they are able to grasp classical theory. I find myself spending a lot of time lecturing about history because they know so little about the Industrial Revolution or the transitions from monarchies to republics in Western Europe. Sometimes I think sociology students should be required to take a history class before they take theory! I was actually a political science major as an undergrad, and I remember the students in my classes being quite engaged with contemporary politics and also being well grounded in history. I thought perhaps this was a generational thing or reflected changes in high school teaching, but I find that when I teach classes that attract students from a variety of majors, the poli sci (as well as some of the other majors) have a much stronger grasp of history and politics than the sociology majors, and are generally stronger students. My sense is that poli sci has come to be seen as a more “serious” major than sociology at many schools. Poli sci has also been very successful in attracting majors (it’s usually one of the most popular majors), so perhaps we need to figure out what we can do to compete. One thing I suspect is that the poli sci departments are better at giving undergrads a sense of what they can do with their major post-college (so they attract more ambitious students), and they teach courses that are topical but incorporate some theory.



    March 7, 2012 at 3:13 pm

  8. Rojas’ points 2 and 3 seem to be at odds. How can students have no interest in “topics that would lead them to think a lot about the social world in a systematic way” if all they have been taking are topical courses? Maybe the argument is that students take these classes because they are easy, and don’t actually care about the content, but at least they would have been exposed to many sociological topics before setting foot in a theory class.

    Point 4 rings true. I would argue the content’s irrelevance is even more profound. A lot of classical theory is thin on “theory” and thick on definitions and typologies: I say “ritual,” you say “superstructure.” What few testable hypotheses are presented in the classics are handled, by contemporary standards, very crudely. (And at least one of the greats might not even allow any need for his “theory” to be tested!) In any case, mega-theories of modernity have been pushed out of the spotlight by small-scale theories of specific social processes. Classical theory is no guide here, except in the task of studying the epistemological lineage of contemporary theories.



    March 7, 2012 at 3:18 pm

  9. Also there is a clear disconnection between what most sociologists publish about and what they teach. Yes, we teach conflict theory, functionalism, and symbolic interactionism those old (or even outdated) theoretical frameworks. They sometimes even seem obscure to me because I rarely read or write these works on a daily basis. What we write about? Life course perspectives, social network, fundamental cause, cultural capital, sociobiology, more like middle-range theories with concrete applications. Another thing I find mind-boggling is that I have failed to find an overarching/organizing theme/theorem/assumption that can connect all these dots/pockets of theories/approaches in sociology.



    March 7, 2012 at 4:26 pm

  10. I haven’t had the luxury of teaching a dedicated undergraduate social theory course in a couple years. (In Canada, where I am, most, but certainly not all, undergraduate sociology programs require two full course equivalents in sociological theory, usually divided into “classical” (Marx-Weber-Durkheim) and “contemporary” (everything else). Sometimes “classical” is interpreted rather broadly and that is usually my interpretation. As a result, I start with the major seventeenth century texts and slowly make my to Weber. So, my students will read, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Smith, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Bentham and so on before they get to Marx. Then they will usually read Marx, Weber, Durkheim in relation to either the accepted position they are arguing with or their contemporaries (for instance, with Durkheim, he’s argument is related to, among others, Hume, Smith, Montesquieu, Bentham, Darwin, Spencer, Comte, Tarde, and so on). Whether this is the best way to teach the course, I don’t know, but it is certainly intellectually demanding and it is my expectation that if they don’t like how I teach the course, they find another section or wait until I’m not teaching it. I’m not inclined to change the content because undergraduates might find it boring or irrelevant. After all, I found learning t-test in second year methods to be really, really boring, but it wasn’t my place to criticize the course or the instructor because it is really, really boring. Frankly, such criticisms shouldn’t be taken seriously.

    I do, however, routinely–i.e., annually–teach a first year seminar on power and violence. The course is mostly taken by criminology students (or those who think they want to be criminology students) which means, given the organization of the criminology program, there is a 33% percent chance that they will have sociology as their concentration (the other two options are psychology and legal studies). My general view is that unless there are really compelling reasons why a textbook should be used, then a textbook ought not to be used. As a result, my students will read a variety of primary sources: this year they read anthropologists Marcel Mauss, Pierre Clastres and Marshall Sahlins, legal historian William Ian Miller, philosophers Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Marx, Nietzsche, Norbert Elias, and Michel Foucault–and that was just the fall semester. (The major problem with the reading list, obviously, is that it is a sausage-fest.) In the second semester we relate those texts a bit more explicitly to current issues, using popular culture as our entry point. So, we talk about death and dying, life vs. death, killing and so on in relation to zombies and vampires (this also allows us to talk about the conditions under which a social formation can be more or less stable and more or less secure); we read China Mieville’s novel “The City & The City”–a piece of social science fiction–to talk about all sorts of sociological issues; we read Coetzee’s “Waiting for the Barbarians” and Jose Saramago’s “Seeing” to talk about legal issues and political sociology; and we just read Evan Wright’s “Generation Kill” to talk about warfare.

    In my third year course called “Law and Regulation” (which is likely better called “Law and Violence”) students read Walter Benjamin, Carl Schmitt, Michel Foucault, Giorgio Agamben, and Judith Butler. Being legal studies students in their third year, most of them have only taken courses with textbooks or readers and most of their courses have been in areas of substantive law (e.g., public, private, criminal, or constitutional). They find it exceptionally difficult–but they mostly put up with it, most them doing what they need to do to pass and a few actually taken an active interest in the course and its material (on my evaluations for the course, I have a rather high rate of “best course ever!!!” or “most interesting course I’ve ever taken!!!”; but I also have a rather high rate of “what is this shit!?!?”). It’s also the only course I’ve ever taught where I’ve had students complain to the chair that, when talking about Weber’s typology of domination, I had the audacity to refer to Jesus as a charismatic ruler–again, this is in secular Canada!

    Generally speaking, I expect about 1/3 to rarely show up and when they do show up to be absolutely unprepared, 1/3 to mostly show up and be prepared about half the times they show up, and the last 1/3 to show up every week and be prepared. I don’t expect the numbers I see to be significantly different from the numbers people see teaching more “topical” courses. Indeed, for many of my students, my courses are the most topical courses they’ve taken; or so they’ve told me.

    As for your main question: why is social theory hard? The simple–and likely obvious answer–is just as students have not been taught how to think methodologically prior to taking a methods course, they also haven’t been taught how to think theoretically prior to taking a theory course. The methods might be a bit more relatable to those students who study finite mathematics in high school, but there’s likely more students who didn’t study such mathematics than there are students who did. To address, I spend a lot of time on the texts themselves, going over passages in detail and pointing out the structure of the argument–not just its claims. I also refuse to use examinations. I make my students write and write a lot. Generally, I have four essay assignments per semester regardless of course level or type. For first year students, I expect at least 1250 words per essay (i.e., 5000 words/semester); for second year students I expect at least 1500 words per essay (i.e., 6000 words/semester), and so on. Between weekly response assignments, two essays, and a major research paper, my third year students in a course on animals, law and society will write nearly 50 pages–and I read and comment on each and every page. If we want our students to take this material seriously, we have to take their work on this material seriously, which means that we need to do our own marking, we need to leave detailed comments, we need to tell students why they went right or wrong, why what they write is wrong, and how to improve their ability to construct an argument. They refer to my teaching as “philosophical,” which for them means abstract and intellectual. If this is the case, what they are saying is that their other instructors are un-abstract and un-intellectual. What the hell are they teaching!?



    March 7, 2012 at 7:06 pm

  11. Some of this strikes me as a difference in how students with different aspirations conceive of the sociology major. For many students it is a general liberal art-type degree with slightly more methods that they hope will make them stand out in the labor market. For others sociology is a system of thinking and research that they plan to use in graduate studies or related occupations. For the latter social theory is important. For the former social theory is probably considered way too esoteric and dense. As a result they make a cost-benefit analysis and decide theory won’t matter to them getting a “good” job with TSA or a car dealership or a call center or the like. They may not be wrong or they may be. But the fact remains that some kind of grad/professional school curriculum and a general knowledge social science curriculum might resolve this although not satisfactorily for those of us who think everyone benefits from learning systematic thinking. But thems the apples.



    March 9, 2012 at 8:28 am

  12. In light of the more detailed comments I will keep mine short. I have taught undergrad theory for years at a major public state university and although I agree that there are certainly issues with students understanding, comprehending, and grasping original works and with theory courses asking students to think differently than they have been asked to think previously these are not the primary reasons why theory is hard for students. Theory is hard for students because it is abstract and many have trouble thinking abstractly. That is for students to learn they need concrete examples to reinforce the concepts.

    Students, I find, learn the theories best when they can relate it to their own lives. Therefore, the best examples are ones that speak to their own experiences. Nevertheless, most students struggle with theory because faculty themselves have a difficult time finding ways to relate the material to students. The point about students having little to no interest in politics, current events, history, etc. is only problematic when you as the instructor can only relate the theory to those things. If students have no idea what your example is then it is a bad example. For example, I do not teach the concept of trust and social capital by discussing the quid pro quos of American politics, I talk about it in reference to students working on group projects and how much they hate doing so because they cannot trust their group members to play their role so their grade suffers…but if there was trust that they could accomplish so much more than they could on their own.

    Of course, some theories are more applicable to the students’ experiences/lives/interests than others, but the point is to find a way to teach theory via examples that relate to students rather than findings students who relate to your examples.



    March 12, 2012 at 6:19 pm

  13. In India too,social theory is not exactly a popular area of study. Some students go for short cuts, even many teachers hardly follow the real meanings.The problem of understanding social theory gets worse with popular texts available in local language with poor translation or even misleading ‘copies’ of the original. A sociologist in making shall keep himself aware as to what is happening, try to find out why and how in the real time and try to connect with social theory.


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