orgtheory.net

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!

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($5 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist/From Black Power/Party in the Street

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.

Advertisements

Written by fabiorojas

February 2, 2017 at 12:11 am

2 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. First, I would say social thought, social theory, and sociological theory are three different things. I mention this because I’m not convinced by the argument that sociology programs spend too much time teaching “history of social thought”. If anything, most doctoral students seem to me to be very poorly trained in this respect.

    Secondly, is it really worthwhile to call on sociology instructors to divorce sociological ideas from the context in which they were developed? I can somewhat understand the argument in the case of the natural sciences (rocks, for example, haven’t changed that much in the last 100 years). Human beings (theorists included), on the other hand, change as a result of historical processes and this necessarily reflects on sociological theory. Marx´s ideas were the product of his time. Same for Weber, Parsons, and any other theorist you can think of. How am i going to teach structural-functionalism effectively, for example, if i do not reflect on the circumstances that lead it from being the central paradigm to the more relative status it enjoys today?

    Like

    Guillermo

    February 5, 2017 at 12:41 pm

  2. […] the basis of critique. So when I’m teaching Arendt or Habermas or Garfinkel, it’s not to teach the history of social theory for the purpose of social history: it’s to open folks up to new ways of viewing the world, […]

    Like


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: