how would (do) you teach theory?

Like Andy, I’m thinking through a graduate theory course (required for our major). I’m not sure how to do it. So I ask your advice. I could do a “classic” Marx, Weber, Durkheim course with a few moderns thrown in. But my concern is it makes theory seem like a subfield of sociology (or intellectual history) rather than a process that every project engages in. So one idea was to read a modern application of each of the big three to get a sense of how the ideas are deployed in a research project (this would also allow me to insert discussions on feminist and race theory that are largely absent from our trinity). Anyone out there have some good ideas? I’d be really happy to hear from folks who’ve sat through theory classes that worked. And of course those of you who teach it. What’s your overall approach.

8 thoughts on “how would (do) you teach theory?”

  1. So, in the last 3 years, I’ve been through two grad theory sequences. I’m just going to plug the parts that worked best from Michigan’s. So, Michigan does a two-semester sequence, the first term of which is capital T Theory. The course starts with political philosophy (snippets of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau), stops off at Smith for a moment, and then moves into Marx, Weber and Durkheim framed in terms of a rejection of liberalism. Then, in a whirlwind, we went through Polanyi, Habermas, Arendt, Foucault and Bourdieu. That last part maybe was a bit too much and a bit too fast, but the overall sweep of the course did a really good job of framing both social theory and sociology as a discipline in relationship to the histories of political theory, philosophy, economics, etc.

    The second term of the sequence is topical, looking at more modern theory and then more applied works using that theory. Feminist and race theory shows up strongly here, although it could have been nice to put a bit more of that in the first term (although it’s already jammed full).

    The sequence does not do the best job of connecting the big theories to current work, but it does hit everything, and it gives it a nice context.

    What does not work well, I think, is sticking solely to the big 3 and not putting them in either an intellectual/disciplinary history perspective, nor a relevance to modern work perspective.


  2. Good question. I like your idea of using modern applications of Marx, Weber, and Durkheim.

    I would start out the course with a few very short selections from the three early theorists, plus perhaps a very few pages from others like Compte or even Spencer or some early 20th century theorists like Mead or a tiny bit of Frankfurt school material. I wouldn’t spend more than a fourth or fifth of the class on this, and I would try to use detailed lectures to give the students a good sense of some of the major ideas of the theorists without spending much of the course on it.

    Then I would move on very quickly to more contemporary schools of theory, such as game-theoretic approaches, critical race theory, extended case method, grounded theory, and even the less self-conscious but probably more common practice of just taking a theory about the world and seeing how it relates to your empirical results.

    In general I would spend some (but relatively little) time on pure theory, focusing instead on interesting and noteworthy applications of theory, or well-known articles that have a theoretical component. I think it would also be useful to make sure the course includes a variety of sub-areas of sociology — sociology of culture, historical sociology and political sociology are ones that come to mind. Most sub-areas of sociology have their own theoretical approaches, and reading good exemplars of these could be more interesting than limiting yourself to finding examples of theoretical approaches that are widely used across sub-areas.


  3. Whatever you do, don’t ask the class if they want a discussion component and then NOT HAVE A DISCUSSION COMPONENT after they vote “yes.”

    I do like the grounding in “classical” theory we got in my class (way back when at UNC). As Dan notes, though, we also rushed through the later group and I would have like more time for them.


  4. I’ve now taught it a few times here at UNC, and for the record my syllabi are up at While it’s great fun to teach, I’m also not really satisfied with any of the iterations thus far (hence my constant tweaking).

    Unlike many places, UNC not only just requires a single semester of theory, for all practical purposes we don’t even offer any more theory than that. Which means that the course has to do a lot of things in a short time:

    Introduce students to enough of the thinking of the sociological canon that they won’t seem ignorant at ASA receptions and cocktail parties. Oh, and that they will actually better understand their own intellectual heritage.
    ForceEncourage students to wrestle with the Big Problems™ of sociological theory, particularly between about 1940 and 2000, such as the problems of functionalism, emergence, structure/agency, and whatever label you use for Goffman.
    Instill the idea that theory (or pieces thereof) inheres in method, so they can’t escape.
    Encourage those students who have strong theory interests to pursue them as part of their professional development.
    Cover the role of theory construction in everyday sociological research.
    Convey the idea that theory is alive, i.e., it’s not just about reading old stuff.

    I really think that’s just too much to do in a semester… but I try anyway, and I do so mostly by moving at a breakneck pace. I’m going to post a couple of slides I use at the beginning of class to introduce ideas about the role of theory in sociology.

    Bottom line, though: I would not give up class discussion or student-run presentations, as much as the students like me to give authoritative interpretations. Sorry, it’s just un-theoretical.


  5. Perhaps I should have clarified: andrew perrin was not my theory professor. I won’t name names, but it was before his time.

    Class discussion would have help me SO MUCH with the material but it was given lip-service only. Sometimes our extra-classroom discussions were good.

    I never found much discussion of theory after the social theory class. Or any inclusion of it in my track (mostly demography). In fact, it wasn’t until I was defending my dissertation that one of my OUTSIDE members said, “you’re a sociologist–where’s the theory?” I shook my head and thought, ‘you just don’t understand.’


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