Course Description


This course is about SOCIOLOGICAL THEORY. We distinguish this from activism, social commentary, policy recommendations, empirical research, ideology, and polemics, although all of these can, at times, be found under the heading "theory." We will also be self-consciously focused on the sociological mainstream or canon, not as an endorsement but because in the limited attention space available it makes sense to focus on building a foundation rather than trying to give everything its due. Additionally, there are several courses at Mills in which theorists we could, but won't talk about, are covered.1

This course is a broad survey of sociological theory. Although you will not be an expert in any one thinker’s ideas, you will be exposed to a variety of theories and the debates occurring between thinkers. The work for the course WILL include an opportunity to focus more on a set of related theories and thinkers.

Strictly speaking, this course is about sociological thought not "social theory." The latter is the broader category including all manner of writings from the philosophical and epistemological to the political and polemical; it may overlap in places with sociological theory, but it neither subsumes nor is subsumed by it. The course is also not, strictly speaking, intellectual history, though there will be some overlap there too.

Our goals include enhancing your

  1. Ability to effectively read theory texts and make sense of them, parsing difficult rhetoric to extract concepts, claims, and arguments;
  2. Grasp of the genealogy of sociological thinking — both the family relations and the family feuds;
  3. "Ownership" of concepts that constitute the core toolkit of the discipline;
  4. Familiarity with the work of certain key thinkers;
  5. Desire that theory you read makes sense, is useful, and can be connected to research;
  6. Standards of logic, coherence, and empirical support for arguments and claims;
  7. Appreciation of "old" ideas and how much of the recent is not new and what we mean by "on the shoulders of giants";
  8. Recognition that there is much to read;
  9. Sense of what is on that list and where to start.

The course is roughly divided into four sections:

  1. Foundations: Pre-sociology and the Four Revolutions (American/French/Industrial/1848)
  2. Classical Theory
  3. The Twentieth Century
  4. What's new and next?


The course begins with three "maps" and a game of "Jeopardy." Randall Collins' "The Nonrational Foundations of Rationality" in Sociological Insight will be our orientation to fundamentals of the sociological perspective, and our primary problem. The chapter will "drop" many names and concepts that will be new to you. You want to start making index cards of these right away.

After reading Collins, we'll wade into an article that assumes you know a lot more about social theory than you probably do. Murray Davis' "That's Interesting!" is a theory about theories. From it we will learn a way of thinking about theory as well as add a lot of "what is X's theory about" tidbits to our Jeopardy data base.

Our third map of social theory will be a chapter from Dennis Wrong's The Problem of Order. Once again, it will be a discussion of a lot of thinkers we have not yet read (although we will have met some of them in Collins and Davis). Our goal here is to walk away with a fundamental orientation toward the problems that have motivated social theory from its start. And, we'll collect even more items for our database.

This section concludes with a look at some excerpts from Hobbes, Rousseau, and Adam Smith. With these texts we will practice a cutting edge style of of reading: tweeting and aphorizing.

Our first exam will be in the form of a quiz show.

Theory Samplers

Before we plunge into the canon-proper, we'll introduce the idea of a "Theory Sampler." Our textbook has well over 100 excerpts and it is simply impossible to read them all without structuring the course as one long series of "travelogue" lectures. The readings for each class session are, in fact, rather limited. In order to allow you to be exposed to more than this core, our primary assignment in the course will be the preparation of a report/paper/presentation on a selection of linked excerpts (mostly in the book, but in some cases supplemented by other readings). The excerpts may be linked by the thinker, the topic, the time period, the style of theorizing, etc. The exercise is designed to give you the experience of becoming a relative expert on a focused area even while the course itself is a broad survey. Also, the goal is to have you experience the overlap of ideas and the continuity across multiple thinkers/texts.

What we will do at this point in the course is do a sampler together so that you become familiar with the genre. Your task will then be to select one from a list the instructor will provide and then begin reading and annotating these excerpts according to a schedule specified in the syllabus.

Classical Theory

The "founding fathers" of the discipline of sociology are many, but if you have to name just a few they are Comte, Marx, Weber, and Durkheim. Their work is the focus of part two of the course.

The context for the work of the first two are three revolutions: American/French democratic revolutions; the industrial revolution; and the revolutions of 1848. If you are foggy on these, you should consult at least the Wikipedia articles about them.

We'll read a short selection from Comte and several pieces by Marx.

Comte is perhaps the first person who dreamed of sociology as its own discipline. He's also the "father" of positivism. We will want to know a little bit about what he was up to and what we mean by positivism.

Marx is writing in a tradition known as "political economy" — and it's hard to make sense of his use of this term without doing a little background reading. The Wikipedia articles on Political Economy and neoclassical economics provide a very quick overview. His work introduces us to the antimony of idealism and materialism, the logic of the dialectic, solidifies economic class as a fundamental dimension of social variation, gives us the concepts of ideology, false consciousness. Most important for ongoing development of a theory of society is the idea that conflict and contest is the motor of history and the fundamental character of social life.

Marx's writings can be a hard read, especially in a drive-by course like this and so we will lean on a delightful crutch, Marx for Beginners by Rius, a Mexican political cartoonist. We will then read excerpts from a few "must-read" classics:

  • Rius' Marx for Beginners
  • In an excerpt from "The Manifesto of Class Struggle" we get a picture of what Marx means by the bourgeoisie and his dialectical view of the history of western society.

We will also take a look at a piece that introduces some ideas about ideology and false consciousness and the famous "theses on Feuerbach".

TAKEAWAYS: Comte's dream of a science of society — pros and cons; Marx's fundamental concepts

To keep ourselves focused, we'll have an exam at the end of the section on Marx.

Next we'll spend some time with Max Weber and Emile Durkheim.

We'll have a second exam at the end of this section.

Neglected Voices

We will then read texts from several "neglected" theorists who are contemporaries of the classical theorists but who are not as often included in theory courses.

Mid-Twentieth Century Social Theory: The Antinomies of Our Age

Theory in the twentieth century was a virtual orgy of binary oppositions: Capitalism/Socialism, Markets/Hierarchies, Decentralization/Centralization, Structure/Agency, conflict/consensus. We will not come close to exploring the full range, but their existence forms the backdrop for the evolution of theory from the classical era to the present.

The years between world war I and world war II saw the emergence of communism in Russia and fascism in central Europe, and the great depression everywhere. What Stalin did in the name of socialism and what Hitler did in the name of capitalism (stretching definitions a bit), discredited both "systems." The horrors of the holocaust did the same to garden variety xenophobia and taken-for-granted biases against various groups. Both the left and the right — socialism and capitalism, if you will — were in need of some rehabilitation. Two strands that continue to dominate theory and politics to this day have their starting point in thinkers commenting on the relationship between the state and the economy before and during WWII. We'll get a taste of this by reading John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek. Nobody in sociology reads Hayek, but as the intellectual hero of boosters of liberal capitalism and free markets (and the group we call neo-conservatives) and anti-socialists everywhere, more should. And Keynes, even if often mentioned, is not often read.

Mainstream sociology in the post-war years was somewhere between these two lines of thought. The dominant school of thought — structural functionalism — is nowadays disparaged as fundamentally conservative, but we'll try to get over that and get a sense of what it was trying to do by looking at texts by Robert Merton and Talcott Parsons.
Talcott Parsons, a sociologist at Harvard, set the theoretical direction for the next several decades with The Structure of Social Action (1937) in which he attempted to synthesize Weber, Durkheim, Spencer, and Pareto into a single unified theory of human society eventually called "structural functionalism" or just functionalism. We'll look at a single essay by Robert K. Merton, one of the 20th century's most productive sociologists, and a few pieces by Parsons.

Theories of the middle range
Merton, Robert K. 1938. "Social Structure and Anomie" (229-242)
Parsons, Talcott. 1937. "The Unit Act of Action Systems" (213-215)
Parsons, Talcott. 1961-71. "Action Systems and Social Systems" (301-303)
Parsons, Talcott. 1943. "Sex Roles in the American Kinship System" (304-307)
We'll need to do a little more digging around for our take-aways here which are (1) a working definition of what makes a theory "functionalist"; (2)

On the side: Introduction to The Structure of Social Action
Full Text at also downloadable in other formats (kindle, etc.)

The Chicago School: Roots of Symbolic Interactionism

Not long after the turn of the century a group of thinkers associated with the University of Chicago's sociology department came to dominate American sociology. Many of them, in fact, traveled to Europe and had either met or attended lectures by the classical trio. Notable figures include: Cooley, Wirth, Park, Burgess, and Thomas. They wrote about urban life, mass media, youth, immigrant experience, race, deviance. One legacy of their work is ethnography as a method. In combination with Mead (who was more a philosopher) and William James (who was a Bostonian rather than a Chicagoan and who lived a few decades earlier) what survived from the Chicago school is a theory of self and society and a conceptual framework we call symbolic interaction. In this part of the family tree Everett C. Hughes and Herbert Blumer who studied with the first generation and who were important teacher of the third generation of Chicago sociologists in the 1940s, a group that included Erving Goffman, and Howard S. Becker.

The major legacies of the Chicago school are (1) the practice of urban ethnography and community studies, (2) theories of the self and social interaction, (3) symbolic interactionism as a "school of thought" and especially a whole tradition in the study of deviance called labeling theory.

Harvard: Systems and Functionalism

Mid-Century Critique

Situation or System?

Critical Theories and the Roots of the New Social Movements

World War II upset the status quo applecart around race, class, and gender. Ideals of freedom and equality were touted as "what we were fighting for," women of necessity played extra-traditional roles, non-whites had served in the military, the New Deal and the "communist threat" raised consciousness about labor, the GI bill created the largest population of "first generation" college students ever.

In Germany, the Institut für Sozialforschung was founded in 1923 as an adjunct of the University of Frankfurt. It was the first Marxist oriented social research institute. In 1935 it too moved to escape Nazism with it scholars resettling in New York at Columbia. It was re-established in Frankfurt in 1953. The tradition in which these scholars work has come to be called "the Frankfurt School" and "Critical Theory," though neither phrase can be pinned down to indicate a specific position or framework. Figures associated with the Frankfurt School include Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcus, Walter Benjamin. The most influential contemporary "member" of the Frankfurt School is Jürgen Habermas. Has written widely about capitalism, democracy, law, and contemporary politics focusing on the possibility of critical rational discourse. Nice bit of background on critical theory influences of Frankfurt School HERE

Horkheimer, Max and Theodor Adorno. 1944. "The Culture Industry as Deception" (325-329)
Niebuhr, Reinhold. 1932. "Moral Man and Immoral Society" (247-249)
Myrdal, Gunnar. 1944. "The Negro Problem as a Moral Issue" (249-251)
Beauvoir, Simone de. 1949. "Woman as Other" (345-347)
Césaire, Aimé. 1955. "Between Colonizer and Colonized" (348-350)
Fanon, Frantz. 1961. "Decolonizing, National Culture, and the Negro Intellectual" (364-369)
Friedan, Betty. 1963. "The Problem That Has No Name" (361-364)

"The State" as Object of the Sociological Imagination

The trend toward doing serious macro-sociology at the level of the world has been growing since at least the end of WWII (though one finds roots in Weber). The "take" has been the political system as contested between super-powers during the cold-war, the developing world as colonialism gave way, the applications of systems theory to geo-politics, the focused study of states as social actors, and most recently studies of globalization and flows of capital, people, energy, and ideas. This work overlaps with what our sister-scholars in economics and political science and history and ethnic studies are doing. These four readings are not even the tip of the tip of the iceberg; the take-away is Geopolitics and Development

Galbraith, John Kenneth. 1967. "Change and the Planning System" (383-385)
Wallerstein, Immanuel. 1976. "The Modern World-System" (399-405)
Theda Skocpol. 1979. "The State as a Janus-Faced Structure" (405-408)
Sassen, Saskia. 1999. "Toward a Feminist Analytics of the Global Economy" (625-629)
Castells, Manuel. 1996. "The Global Network" (620-624)
Kennan, George. 1946. "On the United States and Containment of the Soviets" (287-290)
Rostow, W. W. 1960. "Modernization: Stages of Growth" (294-300)

Three Contemporary Syntheses: Game Theory, Giddens, Bourdieu

Transcending Binary Oppositions: Bourdieu and Giddens


French Theorist Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) draws on traditional anthropology and sociology : Weber, Marx, Durkheim, Mauss, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Merleau-Ponty and, Wittgenstein.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1974, 1980. "Structures, Habitus, Practices" (444-449)
TAKEAWAY: habitus, capitals, fields

Structure, Agency, Structuration: Giddens

British theorist Anthony Giddens was a dominant "meta-theorist" in the 70s and 80s. His main works were a reconceptualization of modernity based on re-synthesizing Marx, Weber, and Durkheim with contemporary theorists. He posed the condition of theory as a choice between the primacy of structure and the primacy of agency that could be resolved by his concept of "structuration."

Giddens, Anthony. 19xx. Excerpts TBA

Game Theory

Game theory. Around 1950 we also see the beginnings of an approach that's come to dominate social science — Game Theory — though it is routinely ignored by sociologists. A notable exception is Erving Goffman whose 1969 book Strategic Interaction is one of the most overlooked works of genius in our field. Some sociologists, starting with George Homans at Harvard in the 1950s have done this and we call them "rational choice theorists" within the field of sociology. For a long time the most visible manifestation of this field was exchange theory. Look for names like Peter Blau, James Coleman, Karen Cook. Connects with network theory and social movement theory. Even lefties get into it with Elster and Wright showing up here.
+++Post Modern Theories

A lot of thinkers writing from the 1980s and '90s through the present get lumped together as "post modern theorists." Modernity, it's been said, is what sociology was created to understand. So, one of our tasks here will be to pin down something like a working definition of "post-modern" and a sense of the variety of things we would find in that particular intellectual garden.

Neo-classical economics. It is conventional in sociology to define the field as the opposite of economics and it's not hard at sociology conferences to find sociologists thumping their chests as they knock over straw-person versions of economics that few economists worth their salt would even recognize. It's not an intellectually healthy characteristic. At a minimum, we should do a better job at understanding what we are criticizing. Better still we would approach our sister science with an open mind and see what we could learn from it.

One thing shared with the economists is methodological individualism which we typically trace back to Max Weber (who was also trained as an economist).

Giddens, Anthony. 1990. "Post-Modernity or Radicalized Modernity?" (485-491)

"Theory about how we live now

Wallerstein, Immanuel. 2003. "Geo-political Cleavages of the Twenty-first Century" (597-602)
Sen, Amartya. 1999. "Asian Values and the West’s Claim to Uniqueness" (629-636)
Beck, Ulrich. 1999. "World Risk Society" (636-640)
Castells, Manuel. 1996. "The Global Network" (620-624)

We arrive at the end of the semester at "contemporary" theory — that is the theory that's being produced today. In most courses you'd be pointed toward various post-modern and hyper-hyphenated identity theories. I suggest that this misses the mark in terms of where things are going, but there are some thinkers you should be familiar with (not least because they might turn out to be just you cup of tea and warrant further study by you).

Is Sociology a Science?

We begin the substantive part of the course with a consideration of what theory is really like, what's it for, why bother. Randall Collins argues in the opening chapter of Conflict Sociolgy that the field has been something of a flop in terms of accumulating a working theory of society, but that it need not be so. And then, in the opening chapter of Sociological Insight, he lays out some of the pieces and how he would put them together to create a coherent theory of human behavior. We'll read these to give ourselves a long term program and to give us some sign-posts pointing to thinkers we want to learn more about.

Assignment: based on Collins, draw a map or diagram.

Microsociology: An alternative to behaviorism

In the post-war period (post WWII, that is), the motivating questions were "how could the Germans do that?" and "what is the future of the capitalist state?" As the 50s transitioned into the 60s, these were supplemented by questions raised by new social movements (new in the sense that they were associated with the "post industrial" world not rooted in the class (workers and capitalists) struggles of the industrial economy. We'll look at three or four signal pieces that illustrate the beginnings of this tradition. Fanon. Friedan. Frankfurt School.

Roots here of what later becomes feminist theory, queer theory, post colonial,

Two big styles of thinking big in social sciences functionalism structuralism.
Over in polisci pluralism

Various alternatives to Marxism

symbolic interactionism

Two important results from economics and related fields: Arrow Olson.

Where Are We Now?

When does history stop being history and start being "now"? Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your perspective), time is finite and we have to stop somewhere. The rule I used to figure out what to include or exclude at this point was "what will serve as training for how to read other things?"

As a field, sociology is fairly well fragmented as far as theory goes. We have a whole set of standpoint/identity sub-fields many of which are not proper subsets of sociology but which sociologists use or borrow from. Related to this are various "post-" traditions.

The Future of Sociological Thought

At this point, let's re-read Collins again. Much of what falls under the title "contemporary social theory" is really meta-theory, the history of theory, or social criticism or ideology. In all likelihood all these will continue to evolve. Genuine explanatory theory about how humans behave and how institutions work will be progressively cross-disciplinary in the coming decades. There are two broad trends here. Some sociologists are throwing their lot in with cultural criticism, the splintering of identity-related standpoint and perspective theories, liberation and resistance. Others look to convergence with other social sciences and even natural sciences and mathematics. But unlike 19th century ventures like this which tried to remake sociology on the model of other sciences (as in Comte's social physics), contemporary work dares to be eclectic and borrows widely. There is, of course, still disciplinary imperialism whereby thinkers borrow ideas and then re-frame them in terms of their own discipline, claiming one discipline's old ideas as their own new ones. But turf battles are a dead-weight loss. If you are really in this business so as to understand humans and their institutions, then you can't really care how a given idea is branded.

And so what should the budding social theorist learn about?

What Next

Each member of the class will investigate and report back on one direction in contemporary social theory
Global institutions
law, economics, sociology
animal behavior and machine system behavior.

For a long time we could comfortably take for granted that there were clear boundaries between human and non-human behavior at both ends of the spectrum: animals and humans were different and machines and humans were different. "Society" and "the social" was ours alone and both animals and machines could be treated as tools, resources, parts of our environment. For the next generation of theory this is unlikely to continue.

Norms and institutions and markets
convergence theories (Gintis, etc.)

A final section of the course might point us toward cousin endeavors — just to become familiar with what is meant by various terms that refer to other approaches to understanding human social institutions.

The "cultural turn" and displacement of behaviorism by cognitivism

Rational Choice Theory
Positive Political Theory
[Organizational Theory
Operations Research
Experimental Economics
Social Choice Theory
Voting Theory
Prospect Theory and other theories of the limits of rationality.
Social Movement Theory
Behavioral Economics

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