Yesterday’s panel on teaching classical social theory was fantastic. Erin McDonnell did a great job organizing and facilitating, and the four panelists — Greta Krippner, Jose Itzigsohn, Zine Magubane, and Jocelyn Viterna — offered really thoughtful, measured, and inspiring ideas. The session was remarkably well-attended, particularly for summer: I think around 100 people showed up. Awesome!
I want to raise a few thoughts about what I hope will be ongoing discussions and reforms in this vein.
Classical theory isn’t classical, and it’s not (necessarily) even theory. This was a theme among many of the panelists. What we think of as “classical” sociological theory was itself the result of a series of intellectual-historical developments, each of them contingent upon theoretical projects. The argument by reference to tradition is therefore particularly tenuous, since the tradition itself just isn’t that old! It’s not plausible to claim that it’s the classical canon that holds our discipline together, since the discipline has changed the canon many times.
Furthermore, in comparison with what many of us see as theoretical work now, much of the classical canon isn’t theoretical; that is, it doesn’t propose predictions or really afford empirical purchase. I am not sympathetic to this concern, as I think “theory” deserves a much broader catchment than that. But it’s true that what we’d want our students to do as theory doesn’t look a whole lot like Capital, Elementary Forms, or Economy and Society.
“Who’s in? Who’s out?” are un-sociological questions. Dr. Magubane made a really important point in her presentation: that each of the theorists we teach wrote many different texts, and that these texts don’t form a single, seamless body of work. When we ask questions like “who’s in, who’s out?”, we perform a substitution, symbolically replacing the text we read with the person who wrote it. Nobody currently teaching has been in a room with Marx, Weber, or Durkheim; a few, perhaps, with du Bois; more with Goffman, Bourdieu, and Foucault. None of these, nor Cooper, Martineau, Wells, or Comte, is in any of our theory classes. If we take a cue from our colleagues in the humanities, we can and should understand these as texts, produced in a particular set of relations, and interpreted and consumed through additional sets of relations. And we can then ask: what role does/has each of these texts play(ed) in constraining and enabling interesting, important, accurate inquiry into the social world? This is a much more sociological way of understanding the texts as well, since as Dr. Krippner emphasized, perhaps the core principle of sociological theory is that the social is distinct, independent, and ontologically separate from the individual.
Modernity is fully imbricated with colonialism. The contemporary world is the result of generations of iterative developments, each partially dependent on the prior. Modernity as we know it–and as it spawned our discipline–is inextricable from colonialism, and the “good” elements of that fact are inseparable from the “bad.” One tragic effect of that fact is that there are no voices, ideas, or perspectives that are innocent to the reality of colonialism; a history without colonialism is unrecoverable, even fictional. Indeed, I believe the attempt to locate such voices (most common in discussions of the indigenous ) devolves into an indefensible, essentialist claim to timeless authenticity, and potentially into the racist trope of the noble savage.
Examining and revealing the dynamics of this fact is not only appropriate, it’s urgent, and I think that’s a crucial place to focus theoretical energy. But let’s not pretend we can ever fully disentangle the colonial from the modern; the racial from the enlightened.
The claims of European and decolonial “perspectives” are empirical claims to be demonstrated, not normative positions to be adopted. Dr. Itzigsohn’s discussion was founded on the historical fact that the canonical theorists were theorizing European modernity and extrapolated that theory to the entire world. (I’m not sure that’s actually true; certainly all of them sought to grasp non-European peoples, though very much through colonial and racialized lenses.) His recommendations included providing theory from non-European “perspectives.” Can we talk for a moment about the metaphor of “perspective?” It’s a visual term referring to the idea that what one sees is based upon where one is seeing it from. In our context, using the term “perspective” implies an empirical claim: that theoretical insight is the product of the specific national-cultural environment from which the author of the theory emerged; and furthermore that such perspective limits the general utility of the theory. (This is my inference, not something stated in the session.)
That may be true, though I have strong suspicion that it’s not. Either way, though, it deserves empirical investigation, not normative adoption. Is it the case, for example, that texts written by du Bois cannot be successfully applied to 21st century Europe, or 20th century Latin America? Or that Weberian analysis of bureaucracy is of no relevance to the South African apartheid state’s operations? To me these seem like self-evidently false claims, yet they seem to me to derive directly from the claim of perspective constraint.
Another implication is that all theories are necessarily perspectival. But in my view the whole goal of theory is to transcend perspectives: to offer processes of abstraction and communication that allow us to compare, commensurate, and analyze new and different realities. Certainly some theories–e.g., those in physics or mathematics–are not perspectival; their claims can be evaluated by any investigator suitably equipped with the concepts and apparatus to do so. (And yes of course that equipment is unequally distributed in many dimensions.) Sociology will never develop such a fully abstract theory, nor, probably, should we. But let’s don’t retreat fully into radical perspectivalism at least without interrogating the empirical claims it entails.
How I’ll adapt my teaching
I won’t be teaching theory (undergrad or grad) in the near future, so I am fortunate to have some time to continue to listen, read, think, and reflect upon these questions. My syllabi have changed a lot in the 19 years since I began teaching theory, and I plan to approach the next time ready to change them again. At UNC we have only one semester of theory (both for undergraduate and graduate students), so there is no classical theory course per se. In teaching the classical portion of my graduate seminar, I see the educational goals as:
- Decentering students’ view of the world and history: the sheer idea that there are multiple coherent, plausible, and foundational ways of understanding society is crucial, particularly given that most UNC students will spend most of their graduate careers doing relatively presentist, methodologically individualist empirical work.
- Introducing and defending the ontological reality of the social: as I put it in my intro class, interrogating the proposition that the fundamental unit of human behavior is the group.
- Grasping the foundational role of inequalities in social order, social change, and social reproduction.
- and yes… Providing a touchpoint on texts that very many of their future colleagues will also have read.
Thank you very much to the four panelists and to Dr. McDonnell for the session, and for the ongoing great conversations.