how should i teach graduate social theory?

In a bizarre turn of events, I am teaching graduate social theory in the Fall semester. Here are my promises to my future students:

  1. This will not be a history of social thought course. I will not teach you old stuff just because it used to be popular.
  2. I will not teach you dense and useless abstract stuff. No ontology here. I will not be a bad philosopher of science.
  3. I promise to teach you the basic ideas of contemporary sociology so you can be good empirical social scientists.

So in other words, this class will not start with 1,000 pages of Weber or Luhmann or whatever European dweeb it trendy this decade. I won’t pretend that reading it will make you better. It will just make you boring and condescending.

So what will I teach? This is where I need your help! Here is what I have decided so far. I want your suggestions about modern empirically oriented work that could help fill it out:

  1. I will start with a short discussion of “what counts as theory?” This is about as meta-theoretical/sociology of science as I will get. I will probably stick with Abend’s Sociological Theory article on what the word “theory” means, Kieran’s now classic “Fuck Nuance” article, and chapter 1 of Theory for the Working Sociologist.
  2. About 2-3 weeks on each of the major theories of sociology: critical theory/inequality/power (chapter 2 of Theory for the Working Sociologist), values/institutions (chapter 4), rational choice/decision theory (chapter 3), and social construction (chapter 5). Each section will have a combination of classic theory articles + empirical illustrations.

But that only fills up 8-10 weeks. Other topics?

  1. Bio-sociology/behavioral genetics/epigenetics
  2. Complexity theory/emergent systems/social networks
  3. The new social psychology (dual process models, motivated reasoning, Vaisey’s working paper on decision theory and soc pysch?)

What would you suggest? Self-promotion welcome!


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Written by fabiorojas

June 29, 2018 at 4:01 am

Posted in uncategorized

21 Responses

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  1. Can we just take a moment to acknowledge that Keiran’s keywords, “theory, nuance, models, fuck” are the best thing that ever happened to Sociological Theory?


    anony mouse

    June 29, 2018 at 5:09 am

  2. How about Relational Inequality theory and linked empirics?

    Liked by 2 people

    Don Tomaskovic-Devey

    June 29, 2018 at 10:14 am

  3. I feel sorry for your students, Your anti-intellectualism is far more condescending than the authors you refer to as “dweebs “. I too start my theory class with Abend’s article, but I take seriously ALL the meanings of theory he discusses, and try to do justice to most of them. My students leave my class with a robust sense of the history of ideas, which to me is one of the core pillars of a sociological perspective. And no, I don’t assign a thousand pages of Luhmann, but I do try to give them a sense of what his project was about, and how it differs from the numerous other projects very smart and learned– yes, that is a thing– people pursue under the banner of theory, and why their work has compelled other smart and learned people.

    Liked by 2 people

    older man

    June 29, 2018 at 1:17 pm

  4. @Older man, do you teach theory? May I send you a copy of my theory book?

    @DTC: Best cites for relational ineqaulity?

    @anonymouse : Yes, Kieran is the best thing to happen to Soc Theory, the journal and subfield!



    June 29, 2018 at 6:04 pm

  5. Some ideas:
    1. Social networks, especially 1a) the recent developments that incorporate decision theory/game theory (e.g. 1b) the more CS/simulation heavy stuff (Duncane Watts etc.)
    2. Social psychology/dual process. Maybe sociological variant (e.g.
    3. Evolutionary anthropology: ?
    4. Something “macro” with focus on institutions or state building (Andreas Wimmer).



    June 30, 2018 at 1:03 am

  6. I really like this approach for an undergraduate theory course. I’m thinking of using your book in the fall for my own undergrad seminar on classical theory–combining your approach with some well chosen pieces from the early days.

    Yet I wonder about it for a grad theory class. I’m not advocating a poor philosophy of social science approach or a great man theory of ideas, but there is value in reading the original texts directly. There is value in considering what got picked up outside of those texts and what didn’t.

    If anything our grad training doesn’t go far enough in terms of original texts: show us how Weber was the first among equals in a community of scholars doing political economy in Germany; show us how Tarde and Durkheim were struggling for hegemony over the definition of sociology. In this depth, we truly learn the lingua that we have inherited, and can move beyond honorific citation.


    Liked by 1 person


    June 30, 2018 at 4:06 am

  7. The only “theory” sociologists need had been laid out in Jon Elster’s seminal “nuts and bolts for the social sciences”.



    July 1, 2018 at 1:56 am

  8. @Fabio

    I teach sociological theory to graduates and undergraduates. I agree with many of your points. However, what about John L. Martin’s approach to social theory?

    My students love my theory course and we read Marx, Durkheim, and Weber, and Mead (and my stand up routine is pretty good). Yet, I approach this more as a critical thinking exercise. In other words, as a introductory window into thinking about complex arguments and models of human behavior and its relation to a larger social world.

    The “Classical’ theories are useful in this sense for a couple of reasons. They tend to build very abstract models given the scope of what they are trying to explain, making it easier to identify the elements of a social theory, i.e., minds/cognition, culture-shared meaning and practice, structure–institutional patterns reproduced over time (the social environment), power–the social rewards that institutions create and perpetuate. These modalities offer not just a way to understand those theories, but many extant explanations of social life, where some complexity needs to be abstracted. They also apply well to folk theories, that often, as a result of lacking scientific dialectical reasoning, fail to articulate the modalities beyond rejecting the alternative position (often ideological in the social psychological sense of in group/out group dynamics).

    In addition, you can build a narrative that is somewhat true about how the “classical” theories are in dialogue with each other: in other words, how the various modalities can be adjusted to reflect a different perspective. And, I don’t think it is a stretch to think that Weber and Durkheim were in dialogue with Marx, and Marx with Adam Smith, etc. With contemporary theory, I think this is actually difficult due to specialization and intellectual silos.

    Do you think this sort of lesson in “critical thinking” has a place in teaching Sociological Theory?

    Is this a different course?

    Moreover, do you think that “critical thinking” is often conflated with being an iconoclast, contrarian, or “critical” in the everyday sense, not a careful skeptic, who engages in thought experiments and probes why certain beliefs are held? This is ultimately my concern: this skill is being lost.

    Anyway, my thoughts. I am interested in your book.



    July 3, 2018 at 8:49 pm

  9. Here are my assumptions teaching social theory:

    1. Reading original texts is over rated. You may have an enjoyable and helpful class, but honestly nobody cares about Durkheim or Weber once they leave your class (or mine).

    2. Reading original texts is misleading as to the nature of social science. Yes, history is well and good but most of your students will not be historians of social thought. Instead, they will be practitioners of social science. Thus, I only teach old texts as a way to illustrate concepts that they can apply, not to labor over “mechanical v. organic solidarity” (interesting historical concept, but completely unused in modern sociology).

    3. Reading original texts crowds out understanding modern social theory. There are lots of great developments today and you don’t need an encyclopedic knowledge of classical sociology to get them. Teach a little Weber to start and then, for God sakes, move on to the living.

    To get a sense of how I teach my course, pick up Theory for the Working Sociologist. You will find a short, easy to read book that immediately brings you to present day sociology.

    Liked by 2 people


    July 3, 2018 at 9:10 pm

  10. PS. I will send any teacher of social theory a copy of my book for free. Just ask!

    Liked by 1 person


    July 3, 2018 at 9:12 pm

  11. @Fabio,

    Thanks for the response.

    Yes, please send it to me if you don’t mind. The strange thing about my department is that we have a theory sequence. So, in consecutive semesters they take “classical” and then modern, at the undergraduate level. Yet, we do not have a similar sequence at the graduate level, almost by historical accident.

    I agree that the biggest problem with “my” approach is that it reifies a “canon” that is not actually connected to the practice of sociological research (and this is a whole other problem related to perceptions of what we do). So, in some sense, my class is like a special topics course on the components of social theory and critical thinking about various explanations of social life–not a course on how we use theory in sociology.


    PS should I email you to ask for the book?

    Liked by 1 person


    July 3, 2018 at 9:56 pm

  12. PS. Are you the Gauchat in Milwaukee? If so, I will have my editor send you a copy.

    Liked by 1 person


    July 5, 2018 at 4:08 pm

  13. @Fabio

    Yes. thanks.



    July 5, 2018 at 6:05 pm

  14. This is a large and complicated question, both philosophical and practical. I considered responding to it in depth but that wouldn’t work. So instead allow me pollute your mind with an essay question:

    Is sociological theory without the classics is like statistics without probability theory?

    In a hundred words or less, pin your heart to your sleeve.

    Liked by 1 person


    July 6, 2018 at 3:15 am

  15. Balthazar, no.

    Probability theory is the logical foundation of statistics. It is how you construct logical proofs of major statistical theorems (like the central limit theorem).

    Classical texts do not exclusively, or even correctly in many cases, contain sociological ideas that are the foundation of modern sociology.

    45 words.



    July 6, 2018 at 4:12 am

  16. Follow up: Insisting that classic texts are essential to sociology is like insisting that 100 year math books are required for modern calculus or stats. Hogwash! Just teach modern, simpler texts that get to the point.



    July 6, 2018 at 4:13 am

  17. Follow up: Many classical texts are full of ideas that many don’t use any more or think are plain wrong. Another reason to use sparingly.



    July 6, 2018 at 4:16 am

  18. Fabio, a few quick questions:

    1. Would you say that sociology progresses in the manner of mathematics?

    2. Is it pointless to study failed theories? How about theories that are methodologically sophisticated, empirically ambitious, and theoretically generative?

    3. Do you think some body of contemporary theory has broken profoundly from the classical tradition? (i.e., has been established on an entirely new set of philosophical assumptions about the social world)



    July 6, 2018 at 5:18 am

  19. Of perhaps we can approach this differently…

    I find it hard to imagine the emergence of an Andrew Abbott, an Arlie Hochschild, a Randal Collins, a Harrison White, a James Coleman, an Erving Goffman, a Michelle Lamont, an Ann Swidler, or a Chuck Tilly, without these people engaging deeply, over an extended period, with classical sociological theory. Now, these may not be everyone’s favourite sociologists, but they are hardly left of field, and they are far from homogenous in terms of their theoretical orientations and contributions. I find it hard to imagine a universe where these sociologists would have been “better off” having not immersed themselves in the classical tradition, and I find it hard to imagine a sociology that would have been “better off” without these people.



    July 6, 2018 at 5:44 am

  20. 1. No.
    2. No. Lessons can be learned from failure.
    3. No.

    But does that mean the standard classical social theory course is a good one? Nope. All it means is that we should be very choosy and selective in what we assign in class. We should assign reading that clearly and succinctly present core sociological theory. Classic texts may or may not do that. But teaching all classics is wildly counter productive. For every Harrison White or Michele Lamont we can point too, we overlook tons of students who just said “this isn’t for me.” We also don’t see all the contemporary work that we did not talk about because we spent too much time on anomie theory or figuring out what “species being” means.



    July 6, 2018 at 11:49 pm

  21. Could you please give some additional specific references for the new social psych that you intend on using?



    July 15, 2018 at 11:39 pm

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