Teaching (social) theory

A series of posts at scatterplot about how to teach sociological theory have been helping me bring together a passle of observations collected lo these many years about the place of theory in sociological practice. Sociology is a richly theorized discipline, with great scope and diversity and some of the best achievements of the human mind over the last several hundred years at its disposal to make sense of our doins at various levels, from various perspectives, and with various agendas. But like historians with our similarly (and overlappingly) rich conceptual resources, sociologists are quite commonly functionally unfamiliar with the tools of their trade. In practice the craft of sociology, like history, is regularly done as if there was one clear and correct way of understanding the world. That so much good work is done in such an artificially impoverished conceptual environment is a definite testimony to the value of pragmatic closure and the efficacy of distributed networks.

In his post “how would (do) you teach theory,” Shakha smartly distinguishes theory as “a process that every project engages in” from “a ‘classic’ Marx, Weber, Durkheim course with a few moderns thrown in… [that] makes theory seem like a subfield of sociology (or intellectual history).” The disciplinary mischief is already embedded in the latter idea that theory can be cordoned off as a separate activity from practice.

I’m not in a position to do a rigorous metasociology, but I do have some anecdotal observations pointing at the general hypothesis that many sociologists would rather eat bark (this particular study might be difficult to get past my Research with Human Subjects committee) or hire an illegal alien than do theory themselves. When I was wandering in the academic wilderness I hooked up as an adjunct with the Sociology department at one of the Cal States. The chair was a pragmatist who had courses to plug faculty asses into and little use for field labels – he just wanted to know what I could cover and since the history of social theory was my bread and butter, I told him all the theory-laden stuff: stratification, gender, popular culture and of course, the theory course. So I taught all of those courses and each was equal parts how to do this and how to think about this, which was apparently an unusual mix. The department’s regular faculty were not lining up to teach these cool courses, which did surprise me a little. Oh well, more for me! as my mom used to say about asparagus when I turned my nose up at it as a kid.

The departmental theorist was in the process of retiring and so in due course, all having gone well, I was invited to teach the two-semester graduate theory sequence. Again there was no competition from the regular faculty. Why became a little clearer when a student from another Cal State an hour or so away showed up for the second seminar. It turned out her department’s regular theory seminar was so narrow, perfunctory and generally hated as a bitter pill that she’d asked around and been told to come up to our joint to check out the new guy who was doing all this cool stuff — like teaching a diverse and living theoretical tradition the students could become actively part of, thinking of theories as useful toolboxes rather than corpses to dissect and memorize, encouraging open inquiry rather than narrow indoctrination, enjoying theory and making it enjoyable. Craziness!

When the permanent theory position came open I was invited to apply and made it into the final three with two other candidates whose degrees in Sociology were obviously superior to mine in History, but who were generalists with little detectable record or vocation as theorists. I was selected by the committee and confirmed by a large majority of the faculty; then, in an intriguing imbroglio that made the CHE, the search was cancelled by the Dean and I bumped over full-time to the Human Development department where I had also been adjuncting (the theory search was joint with HD). While there I applied for several other positions seeking a theorist nationwide, and made a couple more short lists. If I’d kept at it I’d probably be in a Sociology department by now.

Well, I think I’m pretty schmart and at that time I was hot with current pertinent teaching experience and research plans. But still, for a guy out of field like me to be in play past the first cut says something about what kind of meat is on the hoof in Socioland. At scatterplot Andy Perrin notes that UNC, a major research and graduate program, has only recently and minimally populated its graduate theory offerings. Despite a fine faculty presumably with some theoretical savvy, one course covers everything – in contrast at UCSD I took standalone seminars on Durkheim and Weber – but this must hardly be unusual if the pickins are so slim on the job market.

Where all the theorists at? It may well be that a dedicated theorist and theory programme is a bit of a luxury, or perhaps even a privilege. This is true in History as well. Another related part of the problem is probably the dismissive association of Sociology’s classical theories with Dead White Men, which is true and understandable but shortsighted. Standpoint and postmodern successor theories are exciting but can seem to carve up the theoretical landscape into a confusing dispersion. Back in the workshops part of the problem is the predominance of plug-and-play microsociological research programmes and the easy availability of big datasets for conventional quantitative crunching. And part is the intuition, emphatically maintained by Pierre Bourdieu for one, that theory divorced from practice is a monstrosity. Finally, as a commenter notes at scatterplot, each sub-area of sociology has its own theoretical approaches, so the big syntheses are not always directly pertinent.

Ideally, then, theory would be taught not (only) as standalone classes but as tools or orientations within every single class in the curriculum, by whole departments of sociologists who have become sophisticated theorist-practitioners in the open quest for knowledge. Marx, Weber and Durkheim would come up in the flow because they help to understand how some stuff works and/or offer models of how to figure stuff out, not merely because they’re founding fathers.

But as you know, Bob, in practice this is not necessarily what happens, so we’re probably stuck with standalone theory seminars taught only exceptionally by someone with a vocation for theory, which dumps us right back into the situation my student at Cal State was in, which means another generation of theory-averse sociologists. But that’s a shame, because having a good theory means having some feel for why things happen as they do. In principle, people well-trained in Sociology and therefore well-practiced in the sociological imagination would be unusually difficult to surprise and baffle with the ordinary businesses of life in society. Even if emotional, moral and ideological responses remain strong, there would be a mediating buffer of understanding, or at least a swift and decisive ability to generate understanding on the fly in a range of robustness beyond folk mystifications, vulgar monocausals and crass ad hominems. How might theory be taught to support this even in the current regime, and to break the cycle of theory abuse?

As usual, I think the answer starts with thinking about what we actually want the class to accomplish and throwing out coverage as a priority. There’s no reason to think that knowing the contents of lotsa theories has much to do with being able to deploy them to answer questions or solve problems – it’s just a bunch of Trivial Pursuit answers. Do we really need people who can repeat Marx’s theory of surplus value or DuBois’ theory of double consciousness but default to ad hominems about greedy capitalists and white privilege when it comes time to explain the financial crisis?

Squack! Iron cage! Iron cage!

Squack! Iron cage! Iron cage!

Andy is right that some kind of snappy patter about the canonical theorists is good to have at the ASA and cocktail parties, but this can be acquired by a quick spin through Wikipedia or a couple of overview lectures. Otherwise, leave theories as (dead) bodies of ideas to the intellectual historians, as Shakha says. This takes the bitter pill version of the class out of play.

Beyond this silliness, the value of a quick tour is to get students oriented to what resources are available for various kinds of projects and to foreclose narrow cherrypicking. They don’t need to know specifically what Durkheim said about this or that; they need to know the general contours of his work so they know to go to him when durkheimy questions come up. Then, I think a good pedagogical trick to cement the connection is to get right down to cases and make durkheimy questions come up. Here Andy’s problems approach looks good: if we’re interested in the structure/agency problem for example, Durkheim has lots to offer throughout his oeuvre. So to get specific we might want to go to Durkheim on moral order, social solidarity and collective effervescence if we’re trying to make sense of group behavior and ritual at college basketball games or self-segregated cafeteria seating. But then the next trick would be to process the same case through, say, Marx, Goffman, Foucault, Butler, Weeks and hooks to show what resources each theory brings and what understandings it enables.

Because the students need to know how to do this once the class is over, it’s of course incredibly important for them to do it in the class. Doing is a different practice than absorbing and repeating. Demonstrations and lectures simply confirm that theory is something mysterious and alien, the segregated province of unfathomable geniuses or bizarre geeks. For this reason I find it helpful to start out with the notion of default theories (roughly, what Gramsci called ‘common sense’) as a way to recruit students to the idea that theorizing is something we all do, and that it might be better to do it more intentionally and reflectively. It can be especially valuable in this respect to do lots of brainstorming theory-construction in class, using guided discussion to dope out how theories are built and tested. Plugging in existing theories can then be a supplement to a more fundamental pedagogy of theory construction, and particular students can be delegated to do further reading and bring it back to the class for report and recursive elaboration.

Ultimately there’s no substitute for careful study and understanding of whole theory-complexes. Theories are more than tools or lenses; at their best they express comprehensive understandings of the world that can’t be disarticulated without violence or boiled down to their usefulness for this and that. This kind of understanding takes devoted study over many years. Attempting to simulate that in one or two short semesters is neither necessary nor productive.



  1. At UCB we had intro to theory and also standalone courses on theorists, but there was also theory built into every course. That didn’t mean one “knew theory” — it isn’t the same as knowing, what example shall I give, basic English grammar. But here and many other places they have intro to theory and then they think students “know theory.” I do not know how they imagine this to be the case but they do.

  2. I think it’s valuable to distinguish between ‘knowing’ theory and ‘being oriented’ to theory. So if an intro theory class can get students to appreciate the importance of theory, and have some sense of the range of theoretical resources that are available, that’s pretty good. Those students are then oriented to develop theoretical knowledge as needed.

    In my ideal world, theoretical education would go much deeper than that. But the curriculum is crowded and everyone has their good reasons to have their toe in.

  3. This is a good sentence:

    “Theories are more than tools or lenses; at their best they express comprehensive understandings of the world that can’t be disarticulated without violence or boiled down to their usefulness for this and that.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s