Sociology 116-01 History of Sociological Thought

Mills College Fall 2009

Professor Dan Ryan

TR 11:00 a.m. 12:15 p.m. GSB 125
Professor’s Contact Information
Office: 105 Vera Long
Office Phone: (510) 430-3242
Fax Number: (510) 430-2304
Email Address: ude.sllim|nayrnad#ude.sllim|nayrnad

Office Hours TBA by appointment.


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.

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?

See Also: "Logic of the Course"


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.

To earn a passing grade in this course you must, at its conclusion, demonstrate that you can

  1. trace the general trajectory of social theory from its 16th century "origins" in the ideas of Thomas Hobbes to the present
  2. describe general genealogy of sociological theory from Comte to the present
  3. characterize main ideas and legacy of the "big three" classical theorists: Marx, Weber, and Durkheim
  4. explicate an original piece of theory
  5. apply two or more theoretical perspectives to a contemporary social phenomenon
  6. write a coherent essay about social theory

Along the way you will be asked to write practice explications of passages read, and you will be tested on your comprehension of the ideas in the work of many different thinkers. Exams and written assignments will be used as practice.


  1. In-class examinations will be used to assess comprehension of material covered in the reading assignments and class discussion.
  2. Essays will be used to assess each student’s ability to make a clear, coherent,argument using complex language and appropriate grammar and style. Additionally, the assignment will test the student’s ability to make analytical connections between theorists.
  3. The homework assignments will assess the student’s effort to keep up with the reading and comprehend main points of articles and lectures. These assignments will also assess writing clarity and style.

For additional information on course goals and assessment, click here


  1. Reading "Nonrational Foundations of Rationality"
  2. Sample Theory Sampler Exercise
  3. Theory Samplers
  4. First Annotation
  5. Secondary Sources
  6. Theory Samplers
  7. Gateway to Class Member Pages

Check back — subsequent assignments will be linked to from here.


To request academic accommodations due to a disability, students should contact Services for Students with Disabilities in the Cowell Building. If you have a letter indicating you have a disability which requires academic accommodations, please present the letter to me so that I will be able to provide the accommodations that you need in this class.


Your grade for this course will be based on 1) your ability to understand and analyze the various topics and perspectives presented in the readings and during class, and 2) to communicate in writing effectively and with sophistication. Failure to complete all course assignments ON TIME may result in a failing grade. In general, no late papers or make-up work will be permitted. If there is an emergency, an exception to the late policy may be made. In this case, late assignments may be accepted with a grade deduction per day they are late (extreme emergencies excepted).


Subject to modification and fine-tuning, the grade for this course will be based on the following items in approximately these proportions

  1. Initial Class Exercise (first day) 5%
  2. Sampler milestone submissions (~8) 25%
  3. Sampler draft and practice presentation 10%
  4. Tweets 10%
  5. Exam 1 10%
  6. Exam 2 15%
  7. Sampler essay and presentation 15%
  8. Final Exercise 10%

Standards applied to these items will be the usual ones. Please note that A means EXCELLENT, not "OK."

  • A Excellent
  • B Good
  • C Satisfactory
  • D Less than satisfactory
  • F Unacceptable


You are required to attend all scheduled classes and will be expected to initial the attendance sheet passed around by the instructor. Two unexplained absences during the semester (including illness, travel, work, etc.) will be overlooked. However, after 2 absences, your total grade for the course may be reduced by 1/3 grade (e.g., 3 additional absences would change an A into a B) per missed class, regardless of the reason for the absence (emergencies excepted). Do not ask the instructor to adjudicate the reasonableness of non-emergencies as excuses.


Academic dishonesty will not be tolerated in this course. Academic dishonesty includes all types of cheating and plagiarism, whether the result of dishonorable intentions or sloppy scholarship. “In an institution of higher learning, plagiarism is a serious breach of academic trust. For purposes of the Mills Honor Code, plagiarism is defined as intentionally or knowingly using someone else’s ideas, words, and/or thoughts without giving proper credit to the source. All work for which another source is not cited is assumed to be that of the writer. Material taken from another source must be cited by footnotes or by other means, as determined by the assigning faculty member” (Mills Honor Code, Mills College Student Handbook).

References must appear in the text of ANYTHING you submit for the instructor or your classmates to read when ideas, facts, or language come from a source other than your thinking. You must cite sources both to give credit where it is due and to establish provenance of the material to vouch for its validity.

You are responsible for learning how to reference and cite webpages, Wikipedia, online videos, television documentaries, journal articles, newspaper articles and books. Ignorance of how to properly cite something does NOT relieve you of the responsibility to cite sources.

See Also
Academic Integrity Resources


TWO books are required for this course. All books are available at the Mills College bookstore.

  1. Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings, edited by Charles Lemert.
  2. Sociological Insight: An Introduction to Non-Obvious Sociology, Randall Collins.
  3. Marx for Beginners, Rius.
  4. Additional required readings are available online.

See books for links to additional online sources for buying these books.

Learning Goals and Assessment

Mission Goals
Goal Desc Criteria
Students will learn to think critically. (Practice) Most senior projects require the assessment of empirical evidence and the logical assembly of pieces of theory from different sources. Student projects will be evaluated on the degree to which they do this successfully.
Program Goals
Goal Desc Criteria
Sociology Understand what it means to be a human being in different kinds of societies and cultures. (Practice, Master) Each WILL be assessed on the basis of whether their work suggests an understanding of the human condition beyond their own experience.
Understand and use the basic qualitative and quantitative research methods sociologists and anthropologists depend on. (Practice, Master) Most senior project require actual execution of research using one or more techniques in the social science methodological tool kit. Students will be evaluated based on the degree to which their project execution demonstrates competence in the techniques they employ.
General Education Goals
Goal Desc Criteria
Written Communication Write clearly organized essays with the following characteristics: effective paragraphing, thesis development, transitions, use and interpretation of evidence, evidence of larger structure and organization (Practice) Final project to be evaluated on the basis of the aforementioned criteria.
Write essays that incorporate examples from other writers, demonstrate critical thinking and interpretation about the ideas of other writers, and use correct documentation for these examples (Practice) Final project to be evaluated on the basis of the aforementioned criteria.
Use draft and revision processes, demonstrate understanding of different stages of the writing process, and engage in editing and revision of peer essays (Practice) Over the course of the semester students produce multiple drafts in response to instructor and classmate criticism. Students to be evaluated on the degree to which they make use of this feedback to improve from draft to draft.
Produce essays and other forms of writing free from sentence level error and identify where to get further information about such errors (e.g., how to use a handbook) (Practice) Final project to be evaluated on the basis of the aforementioned criteria.
Be familiar with and able to use the tools and resources of an academic library in addition to Internet resources (Practice) This will be assessed indirectly only — has the student successfully located resources necessary for her project. No independent measurement of the attainment of this goal will be attempted.
Be competent in the use of the citation style appropriate to a discipline (Practice) Final project to be evaluated on the basis of the aforementioned criteria.

** The professor maintains the right to make changes in the syllabus. Students are responsible for learning of any changes in the syllabus, whether or not they are present in class the day the changes are announced.

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