languishing legacies of sociology

Sociology loves to forget its history. If you took social theory in graduate school, you may have gotten a treatment of three (!) figures – Marx, Weber, and Durkheim. Maybe four, for the course that covers Simmel. And Marx preceded sociology! In a more inclusive course, you might get DuBois, the Chicago School, Parsons and the functionalists, or some of the major interactionists like Goffman or Blumer. Some courses may toss in the major figures of feminist social thought like Patricia Collins in the modern day or Charlotte Perkins Gilman in an earlier era.

Still, this thumbnail sketch of sociology leaves out a whole lot. For example, it drops evolutionary sociologists like Spencer, the laissez-faire adherents like Sumner, the Sorokin/Mannheim generation, rational choicers like the social exchange school of Homans or modern exemplars like the late Coleman, and the mid-20th century cluster of New York/Boston public sociologists like Daniel Bell, Daniel Moynihan, Nathan Glazer, and Robert Nisbet. These are not obscure figures. They were highly influential in their day and most still have audiences, if not in academic sociology.

I don’t think you have any responsibility to cover all relevant figures in a social theory course, but it is still not a good thing that sociology allows so much of its heritage go to rot.

Here is a humble suggestion. If you are the type of sociologist who has an intellectual and humanist bent, go to the library. Pick one of these zones of sociology that suits your taste and dig in. Then figure out what that they got right and wrong and put it out there. Doing so makes for a great post-tenure project, or one to diversify the portfolio.

The mainstream of academic sociology won’t care, but these figures all have audiences outside the field.  For example, conservatives love Nisbet. Why not be the person to connect sociology to that intellectual sphere? If you’re progressive, you could work through someone like Daniel Bell and update it and sell it to the progressive political theory crowd.

My goal here is not to push a single view of sociology. I’m definitely not saying that all would be good in the field if we just revived an ancient prophet. My claim is less grandiose but no less intriguing. Sociology has a hundred years of incredibly rich and interesting material, but most of it is not put to use. So why not take what we’ve done, improve on it, and start bringing sociology to the rest of academia?


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Written by fabiorojas

January 28, 2019 at 5:44 am

Posted in uncategorized

3 Responses

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  1. How do you imagine reviewers — or even finding reviewers up to the job — would respond? I think, as a justification for contribution, being “we waste so much,” could/should only last so long, right!?



    January 28, 2019 at 12:32 pm

  2. I think one big underlying tension here is that 1) Social Theory courses are typically the only place we do history of sociology in the undergrad or grad curriculum, 2) Social Theory courses typically present a really limited and inaccurate version of the history of sociology. But I’m not sure what the solution is – more people researching more of the history would be great, but there already exists a fair bit of good history of sociology (some written by sociologists, some by historians of social science) that most sociologists don’t know, and are never exposed to. My proposal (which I doubt would ever go anywhere) would be to teach history of sociology as a real course, thus freeing social theory courses to be ruthlessly ahistorical (in the mode you pitched for your undergrad course), focused on theorizing and kinds of theories rather than on telling a chronological narrative that kinda-sorta maps onto something like a history of the field. But I’m not sure there’s much appetite for a history of sociology course in the grad curriculum. So what do we do? Try to get social theory classes to have better history, I suppose, or to abandon history and at least not leave students with the mistaken impression that they understand the history of their own field from the hand-wavy narrative linking Marx to Durkheim to us. Your advice is great, but I have to hope there’s a more structural solution.

    Liked by 1 person

    Dan Hirschman

    January 28, 2019 at 12:48 pm

  3. @Nicholas – C’mon, man. You would never write “waste not, want not” in the lit review. Instead, you would treat it as every other piece of social theory. You identify the relevant issues and make an argument for why it is worth further examination. If you can’t do i, then don’t write it up.

    But there is an interesting question, what sorts of journals would do this? The main ones would probably not publish it and I think that’s ok. The main journals should be about cutting edge research, not reflective humanist writing on the discipline. But we definitely have multiple good journals where this should be normal: Soc Theory, Theory and Society, Theory, Culture and Society, and J of the Hist of Behavioral Sciences. I can also see specialty journals publishing this as well if it fits (e.g., Politics and Society would do leftish stuff, Rational and Soc could do econ/rat choice stuff, Society for the conservative social theory types, G&S can do feminist figures, etc.)

    But the real open space is books. This is the sort of stuff that has a real audience in the space between social theory, political theory, intellectual history, and philosophy. And this stuff gets published and it has a small, but stable, audience that will support it.

    @Dan”TheMan”Hirschman: I don’t see this is curricular. Already, social theory is a mess and undergrads have little appetite for this sort of intellectual project, aside from maybe a few very elite schools. In terms of reforming theory teaching, I would simply abolish history of thought and just do what I recommend. Maybe you’d see an occasional grad level elective on this stuff, but that’s it.

    Instead, this is about the professional expansion of sociology. I think that sociology is really, heavily deep into social stratification. Not bad – and I am part of the trend – but sociology could definitely use some portfolio diversification. One low cost, and relatively easy, way to do it is through a re-assessment of the past.



    January 28, 2019 at 5:31 pm

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