i no longer teach history of thought
For a long time, I bought into the idea that when you teach social theory, you are teaching history of social thought. I also bought into the idea that history of social thought helps students better understand sociology.
I no longer hold these views. I think social theory and history of social thought are two different scholarly areas that have vastly different goals. Social theory, especially as it is understood in social science programs, is a positivist endeavor. At some level, you have a real phenomenon and you have an explanation for why it looks the way it does. I don’t think you need to be a hardcore Viennese philosopher to adopt this view. Rather, I simply mean that about 95% of sociology faculty work on specific areas such as social change, organizational analysis or culture and their work is about making theories meet data in some systematic way.
In contrast, history of social thought has a different goal. The aim of most historical thinking is to understand specific people and ideas, trace out connections over time, and appreciate the social milieu of a previous era. In this sense, history of social thought is a sort of humanistic exercise conducted in sociology courses that provides some background and context to the discipline. It does not necessarily or usually lead to a student being able to better understand the main arguments of the field as they exist today or to use those ideas in their research.
Is history of social thought relevant to social theory? Sure. But that’s not the relevant question. The real question: is history of social thought so important that you would displace other topics in your social theory course? The answer is clearly no. Just as we would not want to drop biological theory for history of biology, we would not want social scientists to drop social theory for history of social thought. The same goes for other topics that sometimes appear in “social theory” courses. For example, we often see theory instructors invest a lot of time in philosophy of science issues, but it’s probably not the best use of time.
So here is my message: Dump history of social thought. When you teach theory, teach theory! Ask your self: what are the models of human behavior and social structure that you think are important to modern sociology? Then, boil those down and teach them. If you enjoy history or philosophy, use it as an occasional topic. But stick to the core of the discipline. It’s in the course title!
PS. I am not against history of social thought courses. If departments offer a separate course on history of thought, that’s great. But don’t let it displace theory.
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