Sociology 250 – Winter 2003

Introduction to Social Theory

January 6 – 8, 2003


Introduction and organization of class


Office hours.  My office hours may need to be changed depending on the other commitments that I have during the semester, but for now start with these as office hours.  If you wish to see me at another time, give me a call (leave voice mail message), send an email, or contact me after class.  I’ll try to respond relatively quickly to emails – within a day.  My other class is from 11:30 to 12:20.


Textbooks and references.  The text by Adams and Sydie surveys a great variety of contemporary sociological theories and it will not be possible to discuss all of these theories in one semester.  I have provided a rough outline of the sections we will cover.   As we proceed through the semester, I will indicate which sections of Adams and Sydie you are expected to read.  For the first part of the semester we will stick close to the outline, discussing Durkheim, Marx, Weber, and Simmel.  Following that we will survey various other approaches and you will not be expected to read all the text.  Two copies are on reserve in the University Library – call number is HM 585 A33 2001.


I will periodically provide class handouts or place articles or other readings on reserve in the University Library.  You should read and be familiar with these.


I have also placed two texts on sociological theory on reserve in the Library.  We have often used a single, comprehensive textbook for this course.  Usually this has been George Ritzer, Sociological Theory, HM24 R4938 and a copy of this is on reserve.  If you wish to have a different perspective on theory from the two textbooks, this provides a good background and discussion.  If you wish to read some of the original writings of one of the authors discussed in the course, a good source is James Farganis, Readings in Social Theory: the Classical Tradition to Postmodernism, HM24 R37.  This provides an excellent selection of original writings.  If you want to get a flavour of each of the sociologists we cover, those selections would be a good place to start.  I would have assigned this book if the cost of the other texts had not been so great.  I have also placed this on reserve.  If you require other alternatives, I can find a couple more books to place on reserve.


Capitalism and Modern Social Theory, HM19 G53, by Anthony Giddens was used in this class in some previous years and has been used in classes such as Sociology 201 and other theory classes.  Although written thirty years ago, it provides a good summary of each of the three main sociological currents.   This book shows how social theories emerged from and are connected with the develop of industrialization and capitalism in Europe and North America.  Giddens may be a more difficult book to read but sociology majors should be familiar with the issues examined in this book by the time they graduate.


Kenneth H. Tucker, Jr., provides an excellent review of classical social theory in Classical Social Theory, HM435 T83 2002.  He also demonstrates the ways that classical sociological theory is relevant today and where there are shortcomings in these nineteenth century theories.


Web site


I have constructed a web site for Sociology 250.  I will update the web site weekly (usually on Friday or the weekend) with the notes from that week.  I will also place a printed copy of the week's notes on reserve in the Library.   Posted on the web site are also the notes, exams, and assignments from previous semesters.  These can be used as a guide, but this semester’s notes and assignments will differ somewhat from those of earlier semesters.  If you wish to see the types of paper assignments and examinations I give, check the web site – more about this later.


In terms of using the notes I have written, you are free to copy them and use them for the course.  If you quote from them in a paper for another class, cite them as you would any reference from a book or article.  For the papers in this class, I would like you to use other sources, rather than quoting from my notes.  These notes are not a finished manuscript that has been reviewed by other sociologists, so there may be errors in my notes – hopefully these are minimal but when I am rushed I may not correct all the grammar or may make other errors.  Students in the past have found these notes useful so I will make the notes from this semester available on the web site and on reserve.




In each of the short papers, I will ask you to write about a specific aspect of theory.  The first paper is to be on a topic connected to the theories of Durkheim or Marx.  I will try to have a list of topics ready by Friday – perhaps five or six topics, of which you select one.  The second short paper will be on some aspect of the approach of Weber, Simmel, or another author discussed in the middle of the semester.  The third paper will be on some more recent theoretical approach and is not due until the time of the final examination.   Each paper is to be three to five printed pages, double spaced.  It should be properly referenced, and I will give you some guidelines for this.


For each paper, there will be a list of several topics and you are to choose one of the topics.  The aim of each of these papers is to present concise statements and arguments concerning the topic. Too often papers that are longer tend to ramble and attempt to cover too many aspects of a topic.  I find that a short concise paper is more useful and provides most of the essential aspects of an argument.  In writing such a paper, you have to decide what is really important in the argument, rather than covering all the aspects, hoping to hit on the crucial points.


The midterm examination is on February 12.  It will deal with the theories of Durkheim, Marx, and Weber.  The final examination is April 23 from 9 am to 12 noon.  The final examination will cover material from the whole class, although the emphasis will be on the theoretical approaches discussed in the latter parts of the class.  Many of these contemporary approaches incorporate or build on the ideas of Durkheim, Marx, Weber, and Simmel.


Faculty of Arts Academic Announcements 


Please contact me if you have any special needs as a result of a disability.  We will provide a means to accommodate you in this class.


Note student responsibilities, drop dates, meaning of academic misconduct, and harassment and discrimination prevention policy.  If you have any special requests relating to illness or obtaining an incomplete or deferred examination, please check with me concerning procedures.


Course Outline  


Today I will provide an overview of the course and discuss aspects of the nature of sociological theory.  On Wednesday, I will discuss the background to the major sociological approaches.  We will then begin discussing Durkheim’s approach to social theory.  Note that the dates attached to each section are anticipated dates – we may not be able to spend exactly the amount of time indicated on each of the sections. 


For the first week plan to read chapter 1 and begin reading chapter 4.


The three major classical theorists of the nineteenth and early twentieth century are Marx, Weber and Durkheim.  We will spend approximately three or four class periods on each of these.  Following this we examine several late nineteenth or early twentieth century approaches – Simmel, Mead, DuBois, and early feminist writers.  Functionalism and conflict theory grew out of the classical approaches.  Microsociological approaches dealing with social action and interaction, feminist theory and postmodernism are approaches that developed in the twentieth century.  This class will provide an overview of some of the contemporary approaches, but not all of the theoretical perspectives in sociology can be examined in detail in one semester, especially not all of the contemporary approaches.  A short discussion of Canadian approaches to sociology will conclude the class.


One set of issues that have become essential to sociological theory in recent years is the discussion of issues related to sex and gender, race and ethnicity, and culture.  These are feminist, post-colonial, racialized, and cultural theories, with many variants of these, so there is no single theory of each. 


Classical and some contemporary sociological approaches have ignored women and non-Europeans or made questionable assumptions about them.  Sociological theory has tended to be a theory based on Western European males – leaving out women and much of humanity outside Europe and North America.  Since these theories developed in Western Europe, by males, this is no surprise.  What is questionable about these approaches is their claim to universality, that is, whether the sociological models are general models that are useful for all humans, in all places, and at all times.  While some aspects of the classical models are very useful across time and place – e.g. Marx’s theory of commodification and capital accumulation, Durkheim’s emphasis on social order, and Weber’s discussion of social action and rationalization – these theories are also limited in their scope and understanding of the social world. 


One way that the approach of classical writers is limited is their understanding of what is the proper realm of the social, or the subject of sociological study.  Classical writers generally focussed on issues in the public sphere of economy, religion, division of labour, and political processes, arguing that these were society and what sociological study should examine.  For the most part, they did not examine the private sphere of household and family as worth of extensive sociological study or being included in the realm of the social.  Since these have tended to be the sphere in which women have played a disproportionate role, the effect of this approach was to limit the discussion of the role of women and those outside the mainstream of society.  By the mid-twentieth century, some sociologists (such as Parsons) began to redefine the realm of the social, and in the last thirty years, feminists and writers have diverse backgrounds have shown the weaknesses and one-sided nature of many of these traditional approaches.  While these new theories have not provided an overall model of society, their insights can often be used to alter or develop the traditional approaches, thus improving them.  More generally, the development of sociology has led to an expansion of what sociologists consider “social” and deserving of sociological study – sociologists now examine issues such as emotions, the body, culture, technology – in some ways, cultural studies has replaced sociology as a primary focus of attention for contemporary studies of the social world.


Today, sociological theory is in a state of transition, with a great variety of theoretical views and different approaches.  Many of the traditional sociological approaches have been attacked by feminists, postcolonial writers, and postmodernists.  While none of these latter approaches by itself is capable of dealing with all aspects of sociology, by examining some ideas of these latter writers, I hope that we can gain some idea of how better sociological theory could be constructed.  Perhaps no single sociological theory can be constructed to deal adequately with all aspects of the social world, but sociological theory and perspectives are still very useful for analysis of the social world and understanding social issues.  Historically, sociologists were involved in social reform and using their analytical abilities to help improve society – hopefully sociologists can continue to use their knowledge and abilities in this same way.




Notes on Adams and Sydie, chapter 1


On pages 1-10 of the text, the authors raise a number of issues related to sociological theory.  Here I discuss three – the definition of what social and society mean, the different varieties and approaches to theory, and the connection of social theory to the social world.  As we proceed through the semester, attempt to see how these three issues are involved in each theoretical approach.


1. Society and the social


Compared with the natural sciences, philosophy, economics, or political studies, sociology is of relatively recent origin among academic disciplines within the university.  While there were studies prior to 1850 that can be considered sociological, and while Auguste Comte (1798-1857, pp. 38-46) is said to have founded sociology, it was around 1900 that sociology began to be better established as an academic discipline.  The work of Marx, Durkheim, Weber, Simmel, and Mead was central to this.  Each developed a study of society that focussed on a particular aspect of what today we call social institutions, structures, and interaction – the way that humans create a social world and how this social world affects human action and interaction.  Through their studies, each of these writers had a particular definition of what constitutes a proper study of the social and what are the limits of the social. 


Each writer developed a somewhat different view of what is meant by society, the social world, or the social.  For example, Durkheim’s analysis demonstrates that sociology can be distinguished from biology, economics, psychology, and culture by focussing on social facts – regularities of human behaviour and interaction that come from outside the individual, from society.  Examples are obligations associated with being a father or mother, or norms concerning proper forms of social interaction.  Marx focussed on oppression and exploitation as bases for class structures and examined how private property and commodification lead to capital accumulation, economic expansion, and wealth for some and poverty for others.  Weber focussed on issues of class, status, and power by examining how authority becomes legitimated for those involved in its exercise and acceptance.  For Weber, ideas were a more important and independent source of change in the social world than they appear to have been for Durkheim and Marx.  Simmel and later microsociologists concentrated more on social interaction among individuals, arguing that the interaction order of daily encounters of humans with other humans was what forms the social world.  From these examples, it can be seen that each writer had a somewhat different approach to what is meant by society and the social.


One way to understand the different approaches to the social world is to consider what each writer or approach considers as the limits of the social.  In general, the nineteenth and early twentieth century writers considered the public sphere – economic activity, religions, political processes, power in the public sphere – to be the proper concern of sociology while issues such as family, sex and gender, sexuality, race and ethnicity, and culture were outside the social sphere.  As sociology has developed over the last hundred years, there has been a gradual expansion of the limits of what sociologists consider social.  All of the above issues excluded by early sociologists have now become central to the study of sociology – family and gender relations, race and ethnicity, and culture.  Even the body, time and space, and technology have become a focus for some sociological studies.  It has also been “other voices” – women, non-Europeans, and others outside the mainstream of society – that have raised issues that sociologists now examine.


2. Varieties of theory


On pp. 4-5, Adams and Sydie note that society is complex so that “no theory is ever a perfect explanation” (p. 4) of the social world.  Theories may be incomplete, opposed, overlapping, complementary, or they may bypass each other.  In addition to the complexity of society, there are several reasons for this.


a. Different definitions of the social.  As noted above, each writer sets a scope for analysis and this leads to different definitions of what is meant by society and the social.


b. Philosophical differences.  On pp. 7-8, Adams and Sydie mention three research traditions – positivism, idealism, and critical theory.  These are different philosophical approaches, each with different assumptions about humans and society and how to conduct research. 


i. Positivism.  Writers using a positivist approach consider society to be understandable by investigating social laws.  This leads to the possibility of predicting social behaviour, much as natural science can make predictions about the natural world.  One example is modernization theory – some social scientists have argued that all societies have a development trajectory from traditional or primitive form to modern societies.  Such development is associated with features such as a decline of religious and spiritual influences and an expansion of secular and rational influences.  It is also associated with expansion of the division of labour and specialized institutions.  While some evidence for this exists, there is serious question about some aspects of such a model, so that a single, universal model does not appear adequate. 


ii. Idealism or interpretive approach.  Sociologists adopting this approach are concerned with “understanding or interpreting meaning” (AS, p. 7) or with the independent effect of ideas on the social world.  They may attempt to take on the view or standpoint of the individual actor and try to understand how this individual interprets the actions of others and responds to these.  This approach can still be objective, in that the sociologist can use rigorous and systematic methods for developing such an understanding, but it is  an approach where the researcher tends to be more “engaged with the subjects under investigation” (AS, p. 8).  This approach is usually more microsociological and less concerned with finding general social laws and investigating the large structures of society. 


iii. Critical theory.  A third approach is where the researcher adopts a critical approach to society, attempting to investigate underlying structures of class and power.  The goal of such research is often to understand these in an attempt to develop plans for social reform and social change.  That is, “critical reflection … can emancipate people from the structural conditions that constrain their behavior” (AS, p. 8). Such an approach can also be objective and scientific, in that it is systematic study of society and history – Marx’s approach is the outstanding example of this.  The limitation of this approach is that it generally has less to say about daily social interaction – it tends to be focussed on the large issues of structure and social change and ignores many of the issues examined by those using an idealist or microsociological approach.


c. Political perspective (Adams and Sydie, p. 9).  Another way that theories differ is in political assumptions and perspectives.  Adams and Sydie classify these into liberal, conservative, and radical approaches.  Durkheim and Parsons have often been considered to have a conservative approach in that they were concerned with issues such as social order, consensus, norms, and common forms of behaviour.  In fact, they may be more representative of a liberal approach – sociology that is concerned with social reform, arguing that “human beings are rational and perfectible and thus society can be improved” (AS, p. 9).  Both these approaches differ from the radical approach (which tends to be associated with critical theory) in searching for discontinuities, conflicts, oppression, exploitation, power, and domination, in an attempt to produce social change.  Writers such as Marx, Mills, and Du Bois are examples of a radical approach. 


In my view, political differences may be a greater reason for different theoretical approaches than are philosophical differences.  Most of the writers in the different political traditions adopt a similar enlightenment view of the nature of individuals and society, but disagree concerning how to understand and produce social change.


d. Ideology, belief, theory.  Adams and Sydie, pp. 4-6 note that each of us is a practical sociologist, since we deal daily with social action and interaction, and the structures of society.  Everyone has beliefs about the way the social world works, and these may be organized systematically as an ideology – a systematic, all-encompassing, and reasonably consistent set of views.  We use these ideologies as guides to action and thought, and these may affect voting patterns, organizations we support, and other life activities.  Examples of ideologies are free-market ideology or revolutionary ideology.  Ideology differs from theory in that theory is more systematic, with assumptions, concepts, models and conclusions, but connected to testing in the social world.  That is, a theory should yield a set of testable propositions that can be investigated in the social world.  If supported, then that provides evidence for the theory, if not supported, then the theorist revisits and revises the theory.  While theories can develop into beliefs or ideologies, good theorists are always ready to test theories, have them subjected to criticism, review, and discussion, and from these revise and reexamine theories.  In that sense, theories differ from beliefs and ideologies, which tend to be more strongly held and those holding to these may be less ready to revise these beliefs and ideological approaches.


3. Theory and the social world


As noted in the last section, theories need to be tested in the social world.  Adams and Sydie make several comments about this aspect of theory. 


a. Deductive and inductive theories (Adams and Sydie, p. 4).  Each theory should have  both deductive and inductive aspects.  Deduction involves constructing concepts and propositions with logical connections among them and “proceeding from the general to the particular” (AS, p. 4).  At the same time, it is from considering puzzles, regularities, and features of the social world that the theorist inductively arrives at some general patterns which may form part of an overall theory. 


b. Experience, observation, testing.  While Adams and Sydie do not highlight the possibility and necessity of testing theory, such testing is essential to developing and improving theory.  It is difficult to imagine why there is any need for sociological theory that is not connected to the social world.  The subject is the social world, that world is always changing, and if the theory becomes too disconnected from this, then it can become outmoded or develop into no more than an ideology.  Sociological theory emerged as a way of understanding, explaining, and improving the social world.  The works of Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Simmel, Mead, and other sociologists were attempts to understand historical or current developments in the social world.  Their approaches became sociological theory because each approach proved useful for examining other issues and problems.  In contemporary sociology, it is important to continue examining the relevance of each theory in society, test propositions, and investigate actual social issues.


c. Sociologist as subject and object (Adams and Sydie, p. 6).  Since the sociologist is part of the social world, he or she cannot be entirely detached from his or her object of investigation.  It is sometimes difficult to examine one’s own self and a researcher should not generalize from his or her own experiences.  This makes sociology a more difficult subject to investigate than many other sciences.  At the same time, by being systematic, as objective as possible, comparing results with those of other researchers, and using a variety of methods that have proved worthwhile in research, the sociologist can develop well-founded and useful explanations of the social world. 


Next day – Changes in European society and the establishment of sociology.


Last edited January 10, 2003


Return to Sociology 250