Why Study Social Theory?

Course Objectives:
  • To help you appreciate the role of theory in social science;
  • To acquaint you with the classical paradigms in sociol­ogy and anthropology;
  • To develop your ability to analyze difficult philosophical texts; and
  • To improve your ability to write analytic prose.

This course is an introduction to classical social theory.  It reviews the work of four major social thinkers who tried to understand late-19th and early 20th-century society.  They are:

  • Karl Marx
  • Emile Durkheim
  • Max Weber
  • W.E.B. Du Bois

Each of these thinkers focused on a a different aspect of 19th & early 20th century society and each developed a different set of conceptual tools for its analysis.  Together, they laid the groundwork for present-day sociology.  This course will explore why and how they did so.  It will show how theory works in social science — by laying bare the underlying patterns that structure social life.  By the end of the course, you should be able to see the presuppositions on which social theories are based, understand how they are constructed, and appreciate the consequences of using one or another of them to analyze society.

Though we will learn to think through the classical theories by applying them to present-day problems, we cannot forget the socio-historical context in which they arose.   Most classical social thought arose out of a white, male, European attempt to understand modernity and its discontents; Du Bois is the outlier, here: being Black made it impossible for him to ignore the American racial caste system.  To understand these four theorists, we will have to learn something about the social transformations of the 18th and 19th centuries, in both Europe and America.

Yet, our interest is not antiquarian.  The analytic systems developed by these four “founding fathers” of our disciplines still dominate our thought, whether or not we realize it.  By understanding them, we can understand most of the social science that has followed.

Writing Across the Curriculum:

This course uses writing as a teaching technique.  You will write in class and out of class—perhaps 10,000 words in all.  This writing will let you show me, as instructor, what you have learned, but it is much more than this.  Writing helps you make personal sense out of the theoretical concepts and systems we are studying.  Writing for this course is thus both an adjunct to the thinking process as well as a communication tool.  This course fulfills the Liberal Arts Foundation WB junior/ senior composition requirement of the University’s core curriculum.

I shall not spend time working on grammar, spelling, and so on; if you have not already perfected these skills, please visit the University’s Writing Lab.

Early in the semester, you will each choose a writing partner or partners, forming a group of two or three who will read and comment on each other’s rough drafts of the two major papers.  As indicated on our Assignments page, I shall evaluate your comments on your partners’ work as part of your own paper grade.


Cool Theory, Bro
Modified from a March 2014 post at the SA21 Fieldworks blog.