Course Goals

Course Goals

Mission Impossible

This is an impossible course. Social theory is simply far larger than a simple semester and there are too many competing pedagogical agendas. And so, in any given instance of a course on the history of sociological thought, we necessarily make compromises and concessions to practicality.

First there is the problem of size. If you happen to go on the field of sociology you will take this course again. In fact, you'll likely take it broken out into two or three semester long graduate courses. This alone tells you a bit about the size of the topic and that we'll have to be satisfied just scratching the surface. Right from the start we're deciding to be OK with that. Texts and authors you absolutely should read will be omitted.

Second there is the problem of approach. In current practice there are three major approaches to the study of social theory. Most courses take a "greatest hits" and "hero worship" approach — three main schools of thought, compare and contrast, etc. Some contemporary courses emphasize diversity and try to touch on forgotten theorists from the past and as many non-mainstream thinkers as can be fit in. A very few courses in theory are oriented toward reading old theory with the purpose of building a cumulative theory of society. If we blithely choose one of these approaches and pretend the others don't exist, we can do fine, but once we admit that each has legitimacy we are left back at "impossible" and recognize that we'll need to make choices.
branch out and try to include everything. And a

I think that the best guide out of this is to keep a goal in mind: the course should give you something to take along with you, something that could actually be useful, in future endeavors. And I contrast this utility with merely knowing more of the tribal lore of sociology.

Let's consider each of these approaches in an attempt to formulate a hybrid that will meet this goal.

History, Genealogy, and the Sociology of Knowledge

A part of the "take-away" from the course is to get a sense of the HISTORY of social theory. This means three things. First, it's a matter of understanding the genealogy of ideas about society — which ideas led to which, how the big ideas relate to one another. The second reason to have a sense of history is to develop an appreciation of how ideas relate to the historical context in which they emerge. And the third reason is to have an historically grounded sense of where the different schools of thought come from and to recognize the long history of core ideas/issues about how human society works.

The "useful later" take-aways here are:

  • some historical map framework into which you can insert things as you learn them down the road
  • an appreciation of how ideas emerge and evolve in general (think of this as a sociology of ideas)
  • clarity about fundamental antinomies in how we think about human and social nature.

The Inclusive Canon

Sophomores are especially fond of talking derisively about "dead white males." A common contemporary approach to teaching social theory is to cast the net widely and offer examples of "under-represented" brands of theory. Over the last several decades there has been an explosion of sub-traditions and sub-sub-traditions and attempts to revitalize thinkers outside the ranks of those canonical "dead white males." One can remain agnostic about the correctness of any given "theory" and whether one subscribes to its politics and still benefit from having one's perspectival toolkit expanded. Unfortunately, the diversity of perspectives typically studied in sociology these days is rather politically homogeneous and selections are made in a manner calculated to provoke "them" but not to ruffle "us," and so to be true to the concept of broadening our view of the world, we have to go beyond what's usually on offer.

The "useful later" take-aways here are:

  • an appreciation of the existence of non-canonical thinkers throughout intellectual history
  • taking ideology seriously and developing a nuanced sense of distinctions between empirical, theoretical, and ideological thinking
  • a healthy skepticism toward any and all traditions that demands empirical and logical support beyond mere belief
  • an appreciation of the relative stature and positions of different traditions in contemporary intellectual life and social institutions
  • recognition that we can't study "hot new theories" INSTEAD of, but rather IN ADDITION to, traditional thinkers and texts

Building a Coherent Theory

Some people are "in" our field because they want to find articulations of ideas that support or affirm their inclinations toward whining about, and sometimes even changing, the world. One or another theorist or school of thought will do the trick and they will adopt it as a source of legitimacy for their worldview.

Others take seriously the idea of understanding and explaining how the social world works. They want a coherent theory of human and social behavior that allows them to make predictions and design institutions that work. They will approach different thinkers with an eye to understanding all, discarding what's not helpful, and stealing what is. They do not think there is anything magical about the entirety of anyone's thought; thinkers have some ideas that are good, right, and useful, and others that turn out wrong or just don't help us much. We are opportunistic poachers who want to build a consistent system of theory that we can use.

And that's the third way in which a course like this can be approached. You need to learn a lot about a lot, but it's oriented around a contemporary thinker who has done some picking and choosing and synthesizing. Your task is to learn about the antecedents so that you can work with, improve upon, and extend a coherent, cumulative sociological theory built up out of the best pieces of the history of sociological thought.

The "useful later" take-aways here are:

  • readiness to selectively borrow from smart theories those components that can be synthesized and built upon
  • a hard-nosed insistence that things have to "add up"
  • an awareness that rigor is key if we want to be taken seriously by those who design, build, and manage institutions
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