Sociology | Sociological Theory
S540 | 21054 | Gieryn

This is the boring old required graduate theory survey, in which
students are forced to ponder conceptual abstractions that have
nothing to do with why they chose sociology as their life’s work and
that are completely useless when it comes time to write the Big D…

NEVER!  This class will be a valiant (possibly foolhardy) attempt to
make social theory not only interesting but useful for students
entering careers of teaching and doing research in sociology.  How?
Our vision throughout the semester will be presentist: that is, we
shall focus our attention on the theoretical choices facing
sociologists today.  Now, perhaps more so than at any moment in the
history of our discipline, it is essential to keep asking the
question: how shall I do sociology?  The question is difficult not
because answers are scarce, but because there are so many answers to
choose from.  Frankly, I celebrate the diversity of sociologies on
the menu these days; tired formulas are not why I chose this

Have no fear: the “greats” will be covered.  But our presentist focus
will have us read the Holy Trinity (M, D and W) not as intellectual
history but as resources for doing sociology in the new millennium.
The classics offer a legacy of concepts, explanations,
interpretations and methodologies, from which we must pick and choose
the parts useful for the agenda each of us has set.  But soon we’ll
quit the antiquities and move on—over half the semester will be spent
on social theory since WWII.  Once upon a time, our predecessors
chose among Marxism, functionalism and symbolic interactionism;
today, we face the bewildering array of post-modernism, critical
theory, rational choice, feminism, neo-institutionalism and
constructivism.  There is no mainstream any more in social theory,
just many babbling brooks.

What are the contentious theoretical issues that face us now?  Here
are some old questions—old and new—that sociologists will continue to
answer in different ways:  what is scientific sociology, or is that
an oxymoron?  how are politics related to intellectual inquiry?  if
you choose micro units of analysis, how do you then deal with the
macro (and vise versa)?  how are structure and agency linked?  is
culture something we should leave to anthropologists?  is the
demarcation “social organization/social psychology” (ossified in the
curriculum of this Department) a dusty impediment to good sociology?
is reductionism inevitable?  who, besides sociologists, does
sociology?  is it desirable to explain?  whatever shall we do with
the non-human, or the non-social?  is nomothetic knowledge dangerous?

At the end of the semester, each of us should be able to answer these
questions (and others) in an informed, principled way, drawing on our
readings of how other smart social theorists answered them.  Of
course, it is impossible to do this in fifteen weeks, but…

The reading load is heavy (no escape from that).  Those students
enrolled for credit will write two take-home exams, and participate
in one e-mediated conversation (graded).  A course syllabus is
available from Tom Gieryn upon request.