This Year’s Theory Syllabus Leaves Out More Than Ever

I’m teaching our required Graduate Social Theory course again this semester. This year I decided I’d snub not just monomanical German system-builders but French Weberians as well. No Foucault for you! I should have started a “What, no x?” sidebet before posting it. In the syllabus, I present a justification for my sins. An excerpt:

Like many programs in our field, Duke’s Sociology department requires its graduate students complete a one-semester survey course in social (or “sociological” theory). The idea that such a course could adequately cover all of the relevant material is, of course, preposterous. However, there is more at work here (really!) than just the usual professorial whining about the lack of time to cover the material in depth. Social theory within sociology is in a strange position. The nickel version is: there are no longer any theorists in sociology. There are theories (or things people call theories); there are theory courses and there are people who teach theory; there are theory articles and theory journals; inside papers there are mandatory theory sections; inside the American Sociological Association there is a Theory Section, too; there are career returns to being thought of as a clever sort of person who can do good theory; you cannot get published in a top-flight journal without convincing the reviewers that you have made a theoretical contribution; and there are people who were once hired as theorists and still think of themselves as such. In some related fields on the humanities side there is also capital-`t’ Theory, with its own practitioners. But since the late 1980s or early 1990s there has essentially been no occupational position of “theorist” within American sociology. No-one gets a job as a theorist. (For more on this, see Lamont 2004, and also Healy 2007.) Crudely, the sort of people who once would have thought of themselves—and hoped to be hired—primarily as theorists now think of themselves as sociologists of culture instead, or (less often) as disciplinary historians of ideas.

As a consequence, many people are not sure what, from a disciplinary point of view, theory in sociology is supposed to be any more, or how it should be done, or what if anything distinguishes it from intellectual history, or philosophy, or normative political theory, or humanities-style “Theory”, or mathematical modeling. And yet, still, a presumed acquaintance with a particular stream of thought (beginning with an enthusiastic and superficial engagement with Marx and ending with a reflexive and barely-informed contempt for Parsons) is—together with an introductory course on linear models—almost the only thing that unifies the field. As the course unfolds, we will occasionally examine the reasons for this odd state of affairs.

In deference to our traditional duty, we follow some of the standard “theory stream” in Part I. Then we move to a more thematic survey in Part II. Inevitably, a great deal is left out—much of which is covered in the theory components of other courses offered in this department on, e.g., stratification, organizations, race and ethnicity, gender, and so on. The more contemporary work assigned in this class is chosen mostly on the basis of its relevance to the cutting edge of empirical research in the field, and its distinctively intra-disciplinary origins.

In short, the content and structure of the seminar reflects the uncomfortable position in which social theory—and the graduate social theory course—finds itself within sociology. I could have pretended that it is still 1978, or squeezed in ten pages of everything that calls itself “theory”, or just assigned only the good stuff from the past decade. Instead, I have kept it awkward. I strongly encourage you to read as widely and intensively as you can from the base established here, and to think about how the “theoretical” sections of other courses—or other books and articles—are similar to or differ from the material presented here, and why that might be.

Written by Kieran

August 22, 2012 at 1:30 am

Posted in just theory, sociology

12 Responses

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  1. Your post title is misleading. For a single semester of theory this is chock full of good stuff. I’m re-reading some works for a Theories of Deviance/Criminality class I’m teaching and reminded of my early theories courses… I am quite happy to have notes on how to formally assess theories (logical errors, etc) and having been told to read Popper/Kuhn. This is to say, I had no idea how to critique theories when I started, and I didn’t know what epistemology was (or what mine was) when I started in sociology. It’s nice to (even through class discussion if not formally on the syllabus) have that as a component of the course.



    August 22, 2012 at 10:45 am

  2. Purely out of curiosity, is there a reason you didn’t provide any recommended readings for the week on Simmel?



    August 22, 2012 at 2:40 pm

  3. This is a terrific introduction and I think expresses really well the productive dissonance that characterizes theory in sociology these days. It’s also fascinating that there is almost no overlap between what you are teaching and what I would teach (I’m not doing it this year) and yet I’d be proud to teach your syllabus too! I guess that’s a symptom of the dynamic you identify.

    I would add one to the list of functions the required theory course should fulfill: a certain subversive role encouraging students to engage with empirical work and techniques with a healthy skepticism.



    August 22, 2012 at 3:13 pm

  4. Mike—because it’s a draft syllabus. I’ll get to it shortly :)



    August 22, 2012 at 3:15 pm

  5. YAY. You’ve got me talking to the right people, too.


    Jenn Lena

    August 22, 2012 at 7:46 pm

  6. Synvox: “I didn’t know what epistemology was (or what mine was) when I started in sociology”

    I find the idea of epistemology as shoe-size or eye colour rather odd. If only we had a tool to find out what our epistemologies were!


    Craig McFarlane

    August 22, 2012 at 8:49 pm

  7. I appreciate your offering that to us. I downloaded it for my own folder for the grad theory class I took. (I keep my “School” directories active as I continue to learn.)

    The undergrad theory class was required for admission to the graduate program in sociology. Though not certain at that point that this would be my final choice (it was not), I took that. I then took the graduate Theory course as an elective for my social science (not sociology) degree.

    What found in my experience and what I see reflected in the syllabus is just a lot of reading of theory. In the UG class, our professor Fatos Tarifa introduced us to metatheory. I expected that the graduate course would have had more of that, but ours did not, and neither does yours, apparently.

    In other sciences “theory of experiment” and “design of experiments” are upper level requirements. What makes a good theory? How to do develop one and test it? How do you test someone elses? Reading more Marx or Simmel will do not much for that and Arlie Hochschild is just an enthologist gone native, not a theoretician at all. To prepare some other writings, I have been digging into Anthony Giddens’s undergraduate textbook. He addresses the outlines of the problem of whether sociology is a science, and if so, how so? That was an overview for general students at the lower levels. At the graduate level, I would expect a class in theory to really grapple with that … maybe even wrestle it to the mat for the count…

    Your syllabus is a valuable guide to sociology for the advanced student, to be sure.


    Michael E. Marotta

    August 22, 2012 at 10:48 pm

  8. In other sciences “theory of experiment” and “design of experiments” are upper level requirements

    Same in most good soc programs—that’s what research design/methodology courses are for. The brief vogue for “metatheory” was not this, though. On the whole it was just bad philosophy done inside the discipline.



    August 22, 2012 at 10:58 pm

  9. My Ph.D. program required a theory construction course, in addition to methods courses and classic and contemporary theory survey courses. Theory construction was one of the best courses I took, and it certainly wasn’t badly done philosophy. Rather it was about learning how to unpack theories into their constituent parts, and how to build theories that have constituent parts that are consistent with the theory. Practically, it was also a primer for our master’s theses. This may seem obvious to the practiced and successful social scientist, but certainly was not to the beginning graduate student.



    August 23, 2012 at 5:12 am

  10. cwalken, having taken and benefitted enormously from courses like that myself, I agree. In my earlier comment I was thinking specifically of some bad “metatheory” stuff that was in circulation for a while and which really had nothing at all to do with any research process.



    August 23, 2012 at 10:12 am

  11. […] who identify themselves as primarily “social theory” is shrinking. Let me quote Kieran, who shared with us his graduate level theory syllabus: Social theory within sociology is in a strange position. The nickel version is: there are no […]


  12. […] last couple of months. The main points of that conversation, which originated with Kieran Healy’s August 22 post and continued more recently in Fabio’s posts (here and here) were that: (1) the category […]


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