teaching graduate theory (discussion)

How should we teach graduate theory? More specifically, how should I teach graduate theory this Fall?

In September, I’ll be teaching the first semester required graduate classical social theory course at Brown. There, it’s the first half of a two-part sequence, and the second half hits the high points of contemporary theory (starting around Goffman, and including Foucault, Bourdieu, etc.). So, I don’t need to rush too much to cram some bits of the contemporary in. That leaves a full 13 or so weeks for classical theory itself.

So, dear readers, how do you approach classical theory? How would you like to see it approached? I have ideas, but I’ve never taught the graduate course before so I’d love to hear what worked for you as a student or, even better, as instructor. I’d be especially interested in ideas for useful assignments and methods of evaluation. What would actually help a first year PhD student, especially one who might not be that interested in theory per se? What assignments or readings did you love or hate? What secondary sources were useful in prepping the class?

To start things off, I’ll say that I’m definitely planning to include some selections from DuBois, having been persuaded by Morris’ The Scholar Denied and related discussions. I’m thinking that “history of method” or “how can we know the social world?” will serve as a recurring subtheme, with both DuBois and Durkheim fitting into a discussion of the birth of quantitative social science (see, for example, Hacking’s reading of Durkheim in Taming of Chance).

But what do you think?

Author: Dan Hirschman

I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

23 thoughts on “teaching graduate theory (discussion)”

  1. A bit of Hobbes, Locke, and especially Rousseau at the beginning are often useful, since Marx and Durkheim refer them directly and indirectly so often. Mary Wollstonecraft grabs students imaginations like no other classical theorist–and she too was responding to Rousseau.

    Engels Socialism Utopian and Scientific is an excellent summary of Marx’s ideas. I really like teaching it–but it is a bit obscure for my undergraduates. Still the references to nineteenth century social thought, the Ancient Greeks, etc., all provide a fantastic perspective. There is also a nice summary of historical materialism at the end, which is its saving grace for my undergrads.

    I use Bellah’s reader for Durkheim On Morality and Society has “The Spirit of 1789” and “The Dualism of Human Nature” in it, which are often overlooked. There are also sections from The Sociological Method dealing with Durkheim’s “Crime is necessary” thesis. Students are fascinated by this. I usually spice it up with something form Kai Erikson’s Wayward Puritans and his assessment of the “crime is necessary” thesis.

    With Weber, the most overlooked essay is “Discipline and Charisma”. The very best paragraph(s) describing the effects of rationalization of human beings is found at the end of this essay. The essay is found in From Max Weber, and our translation in the recently published “Weber’s Rationality and Modern Society.” Politics as Vocation is also fantastic, particularly with respect to the tensions between the ethics of moral conviction, and the ethics of responsibility. Then there are both the funny parts to the essay when he describes the vanity of politicians (and academics), and the (somewhat) hopeful sections toward the end where he tells readers that no saint can be a politician, and why. And finally of course there is the bleak but noble end. The Protestant Ethic is also important to Weber, but I’ve been shortening my lectures over it and elevating “Class, Status, Party,” and “Politics as Vocation.”

    W.E. B DuBois is a great idea. His essay on “Sorrow Songs of the South” in particular deserves a careful read–it is about the “hidden transcripts.” De Tocqueville’s essay “Future Condition of the Three Races that Inhabit the Territory of the United States” is an excellent lead in to DuBois, but DuBois is more elegant in his writing. For your quantitative interests, don’t forget to highlight DuBois sarcastic comment about sociologists who only come to “count the bastards and prostitutes” and not do anything about the problem. As for de Tocqueville, he analyzes data from the 1830 census in his descriptions of race in America.

    Anyway, that’s my two cents. I hope that you have a fantastic class!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for all the suggestions! The sequence I took started with Hobbes/Locke/Rousseau and then Smith & Malthus before transitioning into Marx, Weber, and Durkheim. I really liked that flow as it set up nicely what’s distinctive about social theory, and it especially helps to clarify what’s new and interesting about Marx and what’s simply his being an 19th century economist (i.e. starting from the labor theory of value).

      The Tocqueville-methods connection is nice; I hadn’t thought of it!


  2. Assign my book. You’ve read it and you’re thanked in it. It’s coming out Spring 2017, but I can get you the pre-publication version for Fall 2017.


      1. Will send a copy. But you only half remember. It is a guide to ways of doing theory that uses modern examples as illustrations. Thus, it can be plugged into a lot of theory courses. E.g., the power/inequality chapter makes a whole lot of sense after you do some Marx, or social construction after some Berger/Luckmann. And since it uses a lot of contemporary examples, people won’t be left with the view that theory == old stuff. For stronger students, you can start with the relevant chapters and leap frog immediately to a nice mix of classic and modern examples.


  3. I love the history of method idea–in my classical theory grad class I wrote about theory of method in Durkheim, Weber, and Simmel and found it really fascinating.

    In my recollection, there was a big divide in that class between those of us with strong undergraduate theory training and those without. For those of us with, it was incredibly useful to spend time with the original texts and really assimilate the ideas, think about the intellectual and social history connected to these texts, and truly develop our competency in the theoretical literature. For those of us without that kind of background, I gather than a course organized this way felt unfocused and unclear, and they really wanted more structure and more instruction in how to understand what theory is, why it matters, and what one should do with it.


    1. I think that divide is a recurring problem. One solution is to have a lot of lecture and walking through of arguments, and less discussion. I certainly benefitted from some courses like that (not having majored in sociology or anything related). But it’s a ton of work to prep, and I feel like it might not be the way to get students to really engage the material (even if it does make it easier to follow for those without the background). At the end of the day, I think the point of the class isn’t only or primarily to make it so that students understand Durkheim or Weber but some other thing about theorizing that’s harder to explain but that comes out nicely in a well-run discussion of big thinkers.


  4. I don’t currently teach graduate theory, but I would suggest in your discussion of DuBois to include The Souls of Black Folk (and Philadelphia Negro – though that’s more empirical), because it provides a foundation from which to understand much of contemporary urban ethnographies on African American communities – think Eli’s work.

    Mary Douglas and Jane Jacobs might both be too contemporary, and would fit better in with Goffman et al…

    In my classical theory course we covered, along with Marx/Weber/Durkheim/DuBois: Simmel, Mead, Comte, Spencer. I would add an agreement to Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau.

    Kathy Newman taught our classical theory course and divided the first half of the course toward lecture- situating each week’s author/ideas in context, history, and influence, and the second half was discussion led by students. I enjoyed that class structure


  5. I’ve taught this a couple of times (syllabus) in the past and will again this fall, so following this with interest.

    I second Tony Waters’ recommendation for starting with a bit of Hobbes/Locke/Rousseau (I throw in Smith, too, and Wollstonecraft, because hey, women exist). And I like to assign a secondary text along with the readings to help bridge the variation in backgrounds — I usually use Collins’ Four Sociological Traditions for a very basic intro and I still like Giddens’ Capitalism and Modern Social Theory, mostly because it moves really systematically (chronologically) through the works of Marx, Weber and Durkheim in a way that helps contextualize the pieces that we’re reading. I also include Simmel, Du Bois, and Mead, although I think a broader survey of pragmatist thought might be more useful than focusing on Mind, Self and Society, which is what I’ve done in the past.

    I also really like Donald Levine’s Visions of the Sociological Tradition both for his catalog of ways of thinking about what theory is (could complement with Gabi Abend’s piece?) and for his typology of the French/British/German/Marxist etc. traditions. But while I always find it useful, I think it may be less so for my students, in part because he flies so quickly through so many theorists (Hobbes! Shaftsbury! Hutcheson! Mandeville! Hume!) that they have no real context for. Last time I tried to compensate by assigning it the last week, but that didn’t really work either. Maybe I’ll just lecture about it this time.

    But the trick, for me, is finding the right mix of 1) deep engagement with original texts, 2) getting a sense of the intellectual history of it all (who was talking to whom; how they build on and respond to each other), and 3) trying to give some kind of sense of how these overarching frameworks are still useful for thinking about sociology today. Oh, and historicizing the canon itself in terms of capitalism, colonialism, and discipline-building.

    All those are hard to do, but not nearly as hard (IMO) as putting together a coherent contemporary theory class.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve taught our classical theory grad. course more than 10 times, operating within the constraints of a 10 week quarter. I made two basic choices that still make sense to me: first, Grad. Theory is the first course our entering students take and, as such, it’s an introduction to grad school. I start with Dan Chambliss’s Soc. Theory article on the mundanity of excellence. The piece also provides a good chance to talk about what theory is and what it’s good for. Second, I opted to go deeper into a few authors rather than a picaresque tour of early sociology; this means heavy engagement with Marx/Weber/Durkheim. In recent years, I’ve added a section on American theory, which features WEB DuBois and Jane Addams. It’s harder to find just the right text from each of the Americans, who both come with strong activist commitments and a pragmatic orientation that seems pretty American to me; I still think it’s worthwhile, and a chance to discuss the competing demands of an activist/scholar identity. Weber’s “Science as a Vocation” helps with this as well.
    One more suggestion: gives students as much opportunity to write as you possible can.


  7. Based on what sociologist cited in top journals in the Pre WWII period, I would go with:
    William Sumner (1906) Folkways
    William Ogburn (1922) Social Change
    Robert Park (1925) The City
    Pitirim A. Sorokin (1927) Social Mobility
    George Mead (1934) Mind, Self and Society
    Ruth Benedict (1934) Patterns of Culture
    Ralph Linton (1936). The Study of Man
    John Dollard (1937) Caste and Class in a Southern Town

    If you wanted to throw in some stuff popular in the 1946-1959 period, you could add some Talcott Parsons, Robert Merton, Richard Centers, W. Lloyd Warner and Ernest Burgess.


    1. Adam Smith fits in really well–and is actually a good prelude to the rest. His pin factory is an excellent description of the division of labor.

      The clever little boy who thinks his way out of a job pulling a valve up and down all day so that he can go play is also a good illustration of the limitations of capitialist-style inovation. The little invented himself out of a job, a point that leads you into Marx.


  8. If I worked in a department where we got a full semester to teach classical theory (instead of a full semester for all theory), I would do Marx, du Bois, Weber, Freud, Durkheim, and Tocqueville. Myself, I would *not* go to what I see as the more general philosophical works (e.g., Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau), not because they are not value but because ultimately I prefer depth over breadth, and among the biggest problems in theory is people knowing theorists only as sound bites instead of nuanced, complicated arguments. I like Fabio’s approach of contemporary examples, though I think that is quite fraught with the risk of anachronism, so needs to be done sparingly. Finally, the question I like to use to organize this phase is not “is the theorist right?” but “What would be the implications and consequences if the theorist were right?”. FWIW, all my syllabi are available at http://perrin.socsci.unc.edu/classes .


    1. Thanks so much! I like the question framework a lot – endless debates about wha Marx (or Weber, etc…) got wrong are not especially helpful in this context.

      I think the upside of starting with a smidge of the social contract theorists and early political economists is that it sets up the emergence of society/the social as a Big Deal, and makes it (more?) comprehensible to students who haven’t thought about the question historically before (as well as contextualizing Marx’s economics in the classical tradition, which does some nice work to de-exoticize the Labor Theory of Value). Is that worth 2 weeks of class? I’m not sure, but leaning towards yes (given the context of a 2 semester sequence, so I can very easily stop at either Weber/DuBois or maybe Polanyi).

      In terms of knowing theorists as only soundbites – agreed. I took an excellent class on Actor-Network Theory that read Kant’s Prolegomenon. The professor stressed over and over (in a humorous way) that have read this work in this context was useful for making sense of Latour but really did not qualify us to say anything at all about Kant. I think it worked, but it was an advanced seminar in Anthropology (a very different context than required first-semester theory).


  9. I wonder if there would be a way to provide hooks for students to preface what they will learn in contemporary theory. I found one of the hardest things was connecting what we covered in our contemporary theory class to what we had learned in our foundation class. Having some sense of why the theory will be important or which pieces get picked up would have been really helpful for making sense of the discipline; especially since I started out without much of a background in sociology in grad school.


    1. Good point. I don’t have any magic solution, but I think focusing on bigger/enduring questions rather than history of social thought would probably do some of that. If my two themes are “what is the social/society?” and “how do we make knowledge about the social?” then I think you could draw those themes forward to most of the contemporary big names – Goffman and Garfinkel easily, Latour almost too easily, etc. You can also in the contemporary class make the connections explicit (Foucault draws from Weber, Bourdieu sort of from Marx, etc.) which can help make both classes cohere, and perhaps even make the classical course seem more useful in retrospect.


  10. I apologize for anonymity, but I am a “paranoid” graduate student (better safe than sorry).

    First week of my undergraduate sociologal theory (1st year, European university) started with several articles, including Stinchcombe’s “mothers and fathers” from 1982, Seidman’s “beyond presentinm and historicism” from 1983, Connel’s “why is classical theory classical” from 1997 (and couple others I don’t remember from the top of my head, probably Giddens and Alexander?). This might be a bit dense, but extremely rewarding, for those who are facing sociological theory for the 1st time (as was the case for me at the time), and could be interesting and memory refreshing for those already familiar with it.

    Regarding non-sociology background I know that some European programs require that you pass couple of compulsory courses after being admitted, or comprehensive Soc exam before being admitted. I don’t know why US programs don’t do something like that – it would make it easier and more productive for everybody?


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

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

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google 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 )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.