should i add postmodernism back into my theory course?

The postmodernism firestorm over on OrgTheory contains a delicious irony to me: I actually did not teach postmodernism the last time I taught my graduate theory course, for reasons much like Fabio’s #4: other theory seemed more relevant to contemporary sociological practice. When I teach the class again in fall ’11, I’m wondering whether I should add it back in. (NOTE: I’m actually leaning against adding it back, but thinking it through.)Reasons to add it back in:

  1. I see the theory course as in part a subversive activity; it’s a way to inoculate students against the reflexive positivism that characterizes much of the rest of their training, and postmodernism is an important strain of nonpositivist social thought.
  2. As Fabio points out, sociology’s history and intellectual trajectory are very much in reaction to the dawn of modernity and the attempt to grapple with it. Since postmodernity is in a sense hypermodernity, and postmodernism in a sense hypermodernism, this sort of completes the arc in a clean way.
  3. I think it’s at least a reasonable claim that the contemporary American self is well captured by accounts of postmodernity: fragmented, multiple, technically mediated, always-already tied up in the market and technology.
  4. People in general, and sociologists in particular, have a nasty habit of saying stupid things about caricatures of postmodernism without ever having bothered to read any of it. I would like to be part of the solution to this problem.
  5. Postmodernism is an important strain in parts of the Academy that we should keep talking to, including Anthropology, Cultural Studies, Communication Studies, and Comparative Literature, not to mention Philosophy. We should not be ignoring our links (historical and intellectual) to these traditions in our desperate attempt to bee Scientists. We need not accept the intellectual claims of these disciplines, but we ought to be able to engage in dialogues with them based on shared understandings.

Reasons for keeping it out:

  1. See Rojas (2011).
  2. I don’t know of any particularly good texts to actually teach. I could easily populate a semester’s syllabus with postmarxist/postmodern works, from Lukacs through Althusser, Benjamin, Adorno, Saussure, Baudrillard, etc., but it’s tough to find one text for one week in a class. I haven’t been satisfied with any I’ve done thus far.
  3. Because of 4 above, the very act of assigning postmodernist thought and taking it seriously in the context of a 21st-century empirical sociology department tends to marginalize one in the eyes of one’s colleagues. As much as I want theory to be subversive, I also want it to (continue to) be valued in the department, by faculty and students alike.


Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

7 thoughts on “should i add postmodernism back into my theory course?”

  1. Andrew,

    I’m sympathetic to your “side” of the argument over on OrgTheory, but also the reality of a 1-semester graduate theory curriculum. In UCSD’s three quarter system, we spent about a month on Foucault, and another two weeks on Baudrillard and Lyotard. I’m not sure it was the best use of our time, but it did mean I left having actually read some postmodernism and poststructuralism.

    I think one way to get some post-y content in would be to combine it with discussions of science studies or feminist theory – my favorite theory surveys (like Fabio’s, I think) have the flavor of history of social theory as reaction against political and economic theory in the wake of modernity/urbanization/etc. Some readings I’d want to include would be Foucault’s D&P (which apparently doesn’t count because it’s too influential), then Butler’s “Contingent Foundations”, a tiny snippet of Lyotard (just to get that pervasive definition, and then show that his examples of postmodern theory include things like Game Theory, not just whacky French theory), then maybe Lemert’s “Postmodernism is Not What You Think” and finally Donna Haraway’s “Situated Knowledges”, all reasonably short essays. You could probably do that in two weeks, and if you already had one week for Foucault, it’d only be one “new week”. By tying the discussion to feminist theory and/or science studies, you’d point to places where sociology has been influenced by these ideas.


  2. “Reflexive positivism.”: Our departments are so different. Here it’s “reflexive antipositivism.” Rather than switch around our curricula, we should just host a mixer.


    1. I think “reflexive antipositivism” is oxymoronic. Based on my limited observation children, I think humans are born with a strong positivistic orientation; antipositivism has to be learned. On the other hand, maybe I’m wrong and it’s actually variable and heritable. Can we test this?


  3. Andrew,

    I think “B3” (ie, pomo has such a toxic reputation as to be counterproductive) is ultimately extremely compelling, in part because I agree that “A1” (ie, inoculate against reflexive positivism) is such an important issue. This suggests that you can better accomplish this goal (which I share) by using works/perspectives that are less likely to provoke the grad students into staging a performance of “The Clouds” in your honor at the department Christmas party.

    Instead of assigning Baudrillard or Derrida; you could assign Berger and Luckmann, Kitsuse and Cicourel, or (much like Mike’s suggestion at OT) Quine. I happen to think these non-pomo readings are better on the merits (both in terms of being better written and having more reasonable positions), but regardless of whether you agree with that or not, you have to agree that they are less likely to provoke a “why don’t you go back to the MLA” reaction.

    I mean this in all sincerity and speaking from personal experience. When I was an undergrad in the late 1990s I reacted against some of the clumsy skepticism of my TAs and the general pomo excesses of the era to embrace a pretty strong naive epistemology. It was only later when I read more measured works, like the things described above that I saw the insights of moderate epistemologie. Similarly, the empirical works mentioned in my second comment @ OT should do a lot of good as they give examples of fairly concrete middle-range ways to deal with these issues which is a lot more likely to be taken seriously than a fairly abstract “oh by the way, there’s no such thing as reality” precisely because it provides a model of how to integrate this into research practice.

    On the other hand, this is basically ignoring issues A2-A5 and to the extent that you find those compelling it might be worth risking the B3 backlash. Personally though I think A1 is extremely important and A2-A5 hardly at all, which is why my preference is to use non-pomo moderate critiques of naive positivism/realist-epistemology. Certainly this is how I do things in my own stats class, where I have a lecture on Kuhn and Quine and repeatedly mention issues like garbage in-garbage out, the dangers of reifying point estimates and p-values, publication bias, etc, etc.


  4. Great points Gabriel. I would add that part of my humility comes from studies of experts, (e.g. Tetlock) that show they are greatly over-confident.


    1. If you don’t include it, you should paraphrase the ubiquitous hip-hop disclaimer in your syllabus:

      Sociological Theory 400, No Pomo.


  5. I read through the thread. It was a lot of fun, a much better version of that conversation than usual. I think you nailed the endpoint nicely in acknowledging that Fabio gets to make fundamental normative claims. Here we stand. But as you kept saying, the matter for conversation is in what kinds of images, conventions and practices get built on those foundations.

    I’m a lot less excited about pomo than I used to be, or at least the more distinctively corrosive bits; that’s all still fun, but I don’t find it particularly productive (agreeing I guess with Fabio and Gabriel here). Pomo to me is where all of the critical strategies get pushed to that edge where ironic paralysis is the only option. I tend now to think in pragmatic terms of situations and what needs to be done.

    But I also think educated people should see what that abyss looks like and be reflexively mindful of it, and modestly understand their agendas to be grounded in contingent rather than transcendental values. You can extract that from Hume, Marx, Weber or Sartre, but since it all comes to a frothy head in pomo why not take advantage of that.

    It’s disappointing that we keep churning out colleagues who haven’t been processed through this further crank of the enlightenment handle.


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