Tue Aug 21, 2012

This Year's Theory Syllabus Leaves Out More Than Ever

I’m teaching our required Graduate Social Theory course again this semester. This year I decided I’d snub not just monomanical German system-builders but French Weberians as well. No Foucault for you! I should have started a “What, no x?” sidebet before posting it. In the syllabus, I present a justification for my sins. An excerpt:

Like many programs in our field, Duke’s Sociology department requires its graduate students complete a one-semester survey course in social (or “sociological” theory). The idea that such a course could adequately cover all of the relevant material is, of course, preposterous. However, there is more at work here (really!) than just the usual professorial whining about the lack of time to cover the material in depth. Social theory within sociology is in a strange position. The nickel version is: there are no longer any theorists in sociology. There are theories (or things people call theories); there are theory courses and there are people who teach theory; there are theory articles and theory journals; inside papers there are mandatory theory sections; inside the American Sociological Association there is a Theory Section, too; there are career returns to being thought of as a clever sort of person who can do good theory; you cannot get published in a top-flight journal without convincing the reviewers that you have made a theoretical contribution; and there are people who were once hired as theorists and still think of themselves as such. In some related fields on the humanities side there is also capital-`t’ Theory, with its own practitioners. But since the late 1980s or early 1990s there has essentially been no occupational position of “theorist” within American sociology. No-one gets a job as a theorist. (For more on this, see Lamont 2004, and also Healy 2007.) Crudely, the sort of people who once would have thought of themselves—and hoped to be hired—primarily as theorists now think of themselves as sociologists of culture instead, or (less often) as disciplinary historians of ideas.

As a consequence, many people are not sure what, from a disciplinary point of view, theory in sociology is supposed to be any more, or how it should be done, or what if anything distinguishes it from intellectual history, or philosophy, or normative political theory, or humanities-style “Theory”, or mathematical modeling. And yet, still, a presumed acquaintance with a particular stream of thought (beginning with an enthusiastic and superficial engagement with Marx and ending with a reflexive and barely-informed contempt for Parsons) is—together with an introductory course on linear models—almost the only thing that unifies the field. As the course unfolds, we will occasionally examine the reasons for this odd state of affairs.

In deference to our traditional duty, we follow some of the standard “theory stream” in Part I. Then we move to a more thematic survey in Part II. Inevitably, a great deal is left out—much of which is covered in the theory components of other courses offered in this department on, e.g., stratification, organizations, race and ethnicity, gender, and so on. The more contemporary work assigned in this class is chosen mostly on the basis of its relevance to the cutting edge of empirical research in the field, and its distinctively intra-disciplinary origins.

In short, the content and structure of the seminar reflects the uncomfortable position in which social theory—and the graduate social theory course—finds itself within sociology. I could have pretended that it is still 1978, or squeezed in ten pages of everything that calls itself “theory”, or just assigned only the good stuff from the past decade. Instead, I have kept it awkward. I strongly encourage you to read as widely and intensively as you can from the base established here, and to think about how the “theoretical” sections of other courses—or other books and articles—are similar to or differ from the material presented here, and why that might be.