new adventures in classical theory

Last Fall, I taught graduate classical social theory for the first time. I’m teaching the course again in the coming academic year and I’m trying to decide what, if anything, to change. Last year’s version “worked” on the whole, though there were rough patches. Du Bois, who I had not read before, was a big hit, and I learned a ton from Black Reconstruction especially. This time I’ve upped the Du Bois content to two full weeks. So did the major course themes (“What is the social? How do we make knowledge about it?). My current draft syllabus is here, in case anyone is curious.

Although the course went fine, I remain frustrated with a couple things. First, I can’t figure out how to organically include feminist writing in the syllabus. Last time, I had included some bits of 1980s feminist standpoint theory alongside Du Bois, but the students (rightfully) complained that it felt tacked on, and did justice to neither Du Bois nor feminist thought. The founding fathers remain stubbornly men, and stubbornly not or even anti-feminist.

I’m also never sure how to begin the course – I like starting with a week of what sociology emerged in reaction to/distinction from (classical political thought, political economy), which is how I learned theory, but it’s a very dry, overview week.

For those of you teaching classical social theory, what’s working well for you? Are there particular assignments, readings, etc. that you’ve find surprisingly effective? How much do you incorporate secondary vs. primary texts? Do you include critical commentary alongside the primary texts? For those of you who recently took classical social theory, what worked well for you and what didn’t?

EDIT: I’ve toyed around with the syllabus a bit more. New version here, now including feminist criticism/reinterpretation alongside the major theorists. I’m pretty happy with it, except the absence of obvious readings to include alongside Weber. What are your favorite secondary sources for helping students understand Weber? What are the best feminist readings of Weber?

Author: Dan Hirschman

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

6 thoughts on “new adventures in classical theory”

  1. So I took social theory with Stefan Helmreich at MIT and while he had one full unit on feminism, he would also have a readings with feminist reactions to the canon which would make a great counter-point. So for instance, when we read the classic foundations of liberalism texts, like John Locke et al, we also read Carol Pateman’s The Sexual Contract which really goes after classical social contract theory. I believe he did this for at least two or three units, and then we also had one full unit on feminism.

    Sadly, his syllabus is not online on MIT OCW but I can send you a copy if you like.


    1. Please do! I thought about including feminist reactions/criticism, and Pateman was on the list. But I think you need to make the social contract group their own class then (with critiques). Which maybe is worth doing, but we have such a short term here at Brown (13 weeks).


  2. The best course I have seen was taught by Adam Seligman and used the problem of social order — how does it happen and how is it maintained, as a centralizing organizing concept and a core question in sociology.


  3. Our grad course is one semester combined theory – not divided into classical/contemporary. While it’s too short (more on that below) I actually like the fact that it’s combined, because it offers an opportunity to explore continuities between older and newer theory, not to mention current empirical work.

    That said, I think it’s the curse of the theory course — ANY theory course — that it’s destined to be too short. One could easily do a full semester on Weber, or Durkheim, or du Bois, or Marx, or feminist theory, etc., and still not be comprehensive. In the context of a graduate class, I think it’s therefore essential that the professor provide sufficient context and insight to set whatever texts are chosen in historical and theoretical context. (I have not always thought this; at one point I hoped grasping the theory as a whole would emerge from excellent collective readings of perfectly-chosen texts. I was wrong.)

    My core remains Marx, Weber, Durkheim, du Bois, Foucault, Bourdieu, with other decisions made each semester: what contemporary work to include, what feminist work, and what theorists from the list of stuff I like but isn’t core[1] to include.

    If it’s of any interest, all of my past syllabi are at . Look at SOCI 700 and SOCI 800.

    [1] A partial list of these: Adorno, Marcuse, Habermas, Tocqueville, Rubin, Freud, Althusser, Lacan, Simmel, Merton.


    1. Social theory is grappling with the problem of social change as well as social order — and thus I can’t see how Charlotte Perkins Gilman is not at least as relevant as Simmel — she is engaging with the changing nature of work (some of which tasks were emerging as “jobs” and others remaining “housework”) in very provocative ways and is in active dialogue with the men who focused on men’s work in the transition to a new industrial economy like Marx and Weber. Similarly, if the transition is the more contemporary one to a more virtual economy from an industrial one, why not include Dorothy Smith along with Foucault and Bourdieu? Have you actually looked at how she engages with the “classics” in the theory section of her book Institutional Ethnography?
      I agree Pateman is a good suggestion and not just for the insights into social contract theory as such but many of the assumptions arising from that about rationality and methodolical individualism.
      Basically, you can’t incorporate decent feminist theory if you are just trying to use it to decorate the syllabus rather than challenge some of the premises baked into both sociology and the neo-patriarchal industrial order that it naturalizes (e.g. ‘work” is one kind of thing and “family” wholly other and these relations take place in “separate spheres” and so are taught in different courses by different faculty who have a very different distribution by gender and theoretical knowledge themselves).


      1. Agree re Pateman and the justification for inclusion. And the discussion of Connell et al in the last week is exactly designed to get at these issues of what we see as the core of sociology/social theory and thus worth studying and what sorts of things get excluded and shunted into subfields that are not treated as intrinsically of theoretical interest (race, gender, housework). But I definitely want to do more to work that in throughout (apart from discussion, where that happens).


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