contemporary vs. classic social theory: another bogus teaching distinction

A while back, I was telling a friend on the phone about my book, Theory for the Working Sociologist. He asked me about it and I said, “it’s social theory but illustrated with modern research.” He then said, “oh, that could be a book for a contemporary theory theory course.” I mumbled, “sure,” but soon as we were done, I was like, “no, that’s not right.”

In this post, I want to explain why I don’t buy into the “classic v. contemporary” distinction in theory. Let’s start with a statement of what I do and do not argue:

  •  Claim: Breaking up social theory courses into “classic” and “contemporary” is not a great way to teach. It misleads people about the basic nature of sociology and it is not an optimal way to teach *average* undergrads and grad students about how sociology works,
  • Do not claim the following: Sociology/social theory has no historical phases. A historical treatment of theory has no value. The humanities (e.g., close readings of classic texts) has no place in sociology.  Older texts have no value. I reject these claims.

Let me lay out the argument in a number of steps:

  1. The purpose of a social theory course is to teach undergraduates and beginning graduate students “theory,” by which I mean some set of broad applicable ideas that relate to the empirical investigation of society.
  2. The history of social theory and social theory are different things. History of thought is about understanding specific ideas and texts in relation to the biographies of authors and their institutional and historical context. Social theory is a body of thought that motivates thinking throughout sociology. Overlapping? Sure. But theory and history are distinct. For example, a wrong idea can be important for history of thought, but now irrelevant for theory.
  3. Advanced students can learn social theory in any format (historical, mathematical, sign language, you name it!). *Average* students, at the B.A. and Ph.D. level, are confused by historical approaches. By teaching theory in a historical format, most students take away the lesson that “theory” is synonymous with “history.” Nice to know, but not relevant to research.
  4. Historical approaches to theory are sup-optimal for learning because older texts tend to be written in a highly verbose fashion and refer to a lot of things that even modern educated people may not know about. Example: In Weber’s description of bureaucracy, he alludes to Bakunin, the Russian anarchist, as a foil. Just explaining that single reference to undergrads took me about 20 minutes. Now imagine doing that for all of Weber’s references!
  5. Finally, historical approaches make it hard for typical students to transfer what they learned in theory class to another class, and thus undermine the entire purpose of theory class!

Also, I’d add that no other discipline, except philosophy, teaches its core theory in a historical classic/contemporary format. Economists teach it in terms of scope conditions – micro an macro-economic theory. In political science, it is also broken down by topic (“American politics”) – only the political philosophers (“theory” in poli sci) do it by time period, E.g., classic political theory (Greeks) vs. modern (1500 and beyond). Literary theory (“criticism”) gets its own course while historical groupings are used for specific subjects (“early American novels”). Theories of art courses are different than art history courses. The physical sciences pretty much separate all historical scholarship into a few highly specialized courses. You learn proof writing in math either in a proof writing course or in real analysis, which is the modern theory of calculus. The history of math is its own course. The same goes for physics – you learn physical theory (stripped of history) in classical mechanics (not time period – classic means stemming from Newton’s laws; classical mechanics is still a real area of physics) and quantum mechanics. If you really want mechanics the way Newton did it, you can take a course in that. But no one pretends it is teaching you how to do physics in general. You get the modern, better presentation in your basic physics course.

I think that the classical/contemporary approach to teaching theory comes from a desire to be an old style humanist. I suppose there is nothing wrong that. But for most students, this is an incredibly inefficient and misleading way to teach theory. Even if they do learn some of it in your class, I guarantee many will forget everything you said once grades are submitted. Instead, boil down sociology’s main arguments, illustrate them with modern research and move on. If you want to assign my book, that would be great. If not, that’s ok. Just teach social theory, not history.

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Written by fabiorojas

June 7, 2017 at 12:01 am

4 Responses

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  1. As a philosopher with an amateur’s interest in social theory, I found this post very interesting.

    I would note that philosophy has mostly already made the move you are advocating. Many (most?) philosophy departments at R1s teach the equivalent of their graduate-level “core theory” courses in a non-historical, problem-based way. Among top PhD programs, this is ubiquitous. In some places it is still controversial and there are some holdouts.

    Presenting material historically remains very common at teaching-focused institutions and in (some) undergraduate introductory courses. But at my highly selective SLAC, none or almost none of our intro classes are historically-based.



    June 7, 2017 at 1:01 pm

  2. Thanks, Samuel. I intuited that but wasn’t sure. It’s good to know that philosophy is moving this way as well.



    June 7, 2017 at 6:01 pm

  3. Political scientists distinguish between political philosophy and political theory; the former is more historical and classical in character; the latter is more contemporary and applied. These are distinct subfields. Whether you become a political philosopher or a political theorist, you’ll usually study both.

    One reason to study classical theory as its own course is because – as you suggest – it is highly demanding. I would wager that there is no contemporary sociology which matches the scope, ambition, or intellectual significance of the classical works – those of Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Simmel, certainly, and perhaps a few others. The only time sociology commanded the attention of people from other disciplines, and from the wider intellectual world, was during its classical (mostly pre-disciplinary) phase. Each of the classical authors marshalled a distinctive set of theoretical presuppositions and put them to work, feverishly, on a wide range of social and political questions, often in highly inventive ways. This is not to dismiss contemporary sociological theory. But contemporary theory it is generally not as ambitious as classical theory, and the sets of theoretical assumptions which undergird its different strands render it largely derivative. Should all or most sociology students engage deeply with the classics? It depends what kind of discipline we would like to have, and what we hope for our students. But it is not simply a question of whether we want to model ourselves on the humanities or the natural sciences. From the perspective of theoretical invention, it is advisable to have a depth and breadth in both empirical and theoretical reference – as the classical sociologists did – and surely probably advisable to focus one’s attention on the very best scholars and works.


    Sam Gibson

    June 8, 2017 at 5:02 am

  4. Sam Gibson: Thanks for the clarification on political philosophy/theory. It’s a really unique situation in the social sciences, a significant subfield in an empirical areas that essentially philosophical in nature.

    In terms of contemporary sociology and how teach theory, a few responses:

    – I’d argue that modern sociology is developing a canon that contains some real in depth thinkers whose work could sustain a lengthy engagement. Probably the best example is Bourdieu, whose work has reverberated across the social sciences and is highly ambitious in scope. I think many European sociologists might add in someone like Niklas Luhmann, who inherited the structuralist tradition from Parsons. Among American sociologists, DiMaggio has had one of those stellar careers, whose work has impacted organizational studies, education, and culture.

    – You ask “what kind of a discipline do we want?” My answer: one that answer questions about the nature of society. And it is not clear that old style “great thinkers” is the only way to teach skills that allow future sociologists to accomplish that goal. Especially since these classics are completely devoid of all modern research method and technique.



    June 8, 2017 at 6:10 pm

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