Sociology 319

Contemporary Social Theories

January 11, 2006




Office Hours.  Monday 1:00 – 2:00 p.m. and Thursday, 10:00 – 11:00 a.m., or by appointment.  I will attempt to keep these hours but meetings may be scheduled for these times in some weeks.   My other class is on Tuesday and Thursday, 1:00 – 2:15.


Web Site:  The web site is at the address

As much as possible, I will place notes and links to articles on the web site.  I will try to have the notes on the web site and in the Library by each weekend.  Remember that these are notes and not a finished product.  As a result, there may be inconsistencies in the materials and some incomplete sections.  But they provide a summary and a guide to my own thinking about the issues.  If any questions or suggestions about the web notes, please raise them with me or send me an email. 


In addition to the notes for this class, some of the other notes on the same web site may be helpful for this class.  The notes for Sociology 250 (last revised in the Winter 2003 semester) provide a survey of sociological theory – from classical to postmodern; the notes from Sociology 318 (last revised in the Fall 2002 semester) provide details on classical theorists. 


The web notes from the last two times I taught this class (Winter 2000 and Winter 2003) are also available on the web site.  However, the text used for each of these two semesters differs from the texts used this semester.  The text was The Blackwell Companion to Social Theory, edited by Bryan S. Turner – first and second edition.   A copy is on reserve in the University Library.


Text and Readings: 


  • Bert N. Adams and R. A. Sydie. 2002.  Contemporary Sociological Theory.  Thousand Oaks, California, Pine Forge Press.  Referred to as CST. 


  • Nancy Fraser and Axel Honneth.  2003.  Redistribution or Recognition?  A Political-Philosophical Exchange.  London, Verso.  HM671  F713 – available at the University Library on overnight reserve.   Referred to as RR.


  • Additional assigned readings will be provided as class handouts.  I will also place additional readings on reserve in the University Library or provide links through the web site.


Bert N. Adams and R. A. Sydie. 2001.  Sociological Theory.  HM585 A33 2001.  This text contains many of the same chapters as the text for this course and a copy is on overnight reserve at the University Library.

Additional readings on reserve in the Library on the web site, or as class handouts.  In addition to the textbook and lectures, there will be extra readings for most of the sections.  These will be available as class handouts, on reserve in the University Library, or on the internet (if I am unable to reproduce them).  These will be relatively short selections from different sociologists.   I expect you to read these, be able to discuss them, and be able to write about these on the examinations and papers. 


Assignments and Grading

First short paper                                   15%                 February 13

Midterm examination                            20%                 March 1 and 3

Second short paper                              15%                 March 20

Third short paper                                  15%                 April 24

Final examination                                  25%                 April 24  (9:00 a.m. – 12 noon)

Discussion and participation                  10%                

Total                                                  100%


The papers should be produced on a printer and be approximately five double-spaced pages.  While relatively short, these papers should demonstrate a good knowledge of the topic and present the concepts and arguments in a succinct manner. 


The discussion and participation section will be based on your classroom participation.  In general, these will not lower your overall grade but provide me some discretion in awarding an exact grade.


The midterm examination will cover the material for the first half of the class.  The first part of the examination (March 1) will be short answer and the second part (March 3) will be an essay.  The final examination will concentrate on the topics in the last half of the class, but there is likely to be a question asking you to integrate materials from the whole semester. 


Each of the papers and examinations will have considerable choice.


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 of accommodating you in this class.


Plagiarism.  This was a problem in previous semesters but I trust it will not be a problem this semester.  When I provide the paper topics, I will say a bit more about how you should address the topic in a way that avoids plagiarism. 


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.


If you do not have the proper prerequisites, make sure that you do not run afoul of the Faculty of Arts regulation that all prerequisites must be completed prior to taking this class.  Otherwise you could be denied credit for taking the course.


Calendar description


The course provides an overview of the development of sociological theories through the 20th century into the 21st century.   Prerequisite:  Two 200-level sociology courses, one of which must  be Sociology 280 or 290, or permission of department head.



Class Outline





January 11-13

Introduction and review of classical theory

CST, Ch. 1, 7

January 16-20


CST, Ch. 2.  Parsons, Merton

January 23-27

Critical theory

CST, Ch. 4.  Habermas, Marcuse

Jan. 30- Feb. 3

Marxism and world systems      

CST, Ch. 5-6, Wright, Wallerstein

February 6-10

Symbolic interactionism (SI)

CST, 164-179.  Blumer, Goffman

February 13-17

SI and ethnomethodology

CST, 179-186. Hochschild, Garfinkel

February   20-25

Mid-term break


Feb. 27 – March 3

Systems and structures

CST, Ch. 3. Giddens

March 6-10

Rational choice theory

CST, Ch. 9.  Coleman


Feminist sociological theory

CST, Ch. 10.  Smith, Collins

March 20-24

Knowledge and power

CST, Ch. 11.  Foucault, Baudrillard

March 27-31

Fraser and Honneth

RR, 1-109

April 3-7

Fraser and Honneth

RR, 110-267                            

April 10-12


CST, Ch. 12

April 24, 9-noon

Final examination



Short description of texts, authors, and theories


1.  Contemporary Sociological Theory (CST)


CST provides a survey of contemporary sociological theories and major authors of the last seventy-five years.  Sociology 318, Classical Social Theories, examines earlier sociological theories and theorists – Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Simmel, Mead, DuBois.  This text and Sociology 319 begin with the second wave of sociological theorists, such as Parsons in the United States and the Frankfurt School (originally in Germany), and continues through the twentieth century, discussing theorists such as Blumer, Goffman, Althusser, Wright, Wallerstein, Hochschild, Marcuse, and Dorothy Smith.  Each chapter provides a short background to and biography of the author, and then contains a discussion of the central theories and methods developed by the author.  Adams and Sydie present the materials in each chapter in parallel fashion, organizing the presentation of each set of theories into the six categories (see p. xxii of CST):


  • Central theories and methods
  • Nature of humans, society, and change
  • Class, gender, and race
  • Other theories and theorists
  • Critique and conclusions
  • Final thoughts


We will not cover all the chapters or theorists in the text, so be guided by the class outline, where I have listed the chapters and theorists we will discuss in this class.

Next day I will summarize a few general issues concerning sociological theory and the presentation of theories in CST.   Then we will examine the systems approach of Parsons and Merton, two sociologists who are termed functionalist or structural functionalist theorists.  While their approach may now seem dated, from the 1940s through the 1970s this functionalist approach was dominant, at least in the United States.   It is also important to consider the theories of Parsons and Merton because of the reaction against them.  Much of the North American sociology in the 1960s and 1970s was developed in an attempt to counter the limitations of the functionalist theory.  We will spend next week discussing Parsons and Merton and I will give you a reading from each.

The second theoretical approach is that of critical theory, sometimes referred to as the Frankfurt school, since these theorists were centred in Frankfurt, Germany in the 1930s.  Their approach represents a continuation of the Marxist critical tradition, but placing more emphasis on culture and the media, and introducing psychoanalytic approaches.  Theorists such as Horkheimer, Adorno, and Marcuse considered modern capitalist society as dominating and all-encompassing in the way it structures social relationships.  I consider their approach as generally pessimistic, not pointing clearly to a way of overcoming this one-dimensional direction for society.   Habermas may consider contemporary social movements as a means of countering the dominance of culture, capitalism, ideology, and the media.  Honneth, the co-author of the second text, also writes in the tradition of critical theory.

Another variant of classic Marxist approaches comes from writers such as Wright and Wallerstein.  Each of them works in what can generally be considered the Marxist critical tradition, emphasizing inequalities, exploitation, and class struggle.  However, each also attempts to update the Marxian approach by incorporating the contributions of other writers and paying close attention to new social developments.  Wright primarily addresses issues of class structure in North America while Wallerstein is more concerned with inequalities across regions and countries in the new world system, or what some might term globalization.

In February we examine the micro-sociological or interactionist approaches of the symbolic interaction and ethnomethodological theorists.  These came primarily from the United States, in the writings of Blumer, Goffman, and Garfinkel.  They were concerned with how individuals and small groups interact and they drew on the contributions of Weber and Simmel, from Europe, and Mead and Cooley, from the United States.   The focus of their attention was on the everyday set of social interactions that continually take place among individuals in any society.   While some criticize these theorists for ignoring the broader social issues of inequality and class, they focus on issues that are important to each of us in day-to-day activities and relationships.  Their approaches have proved useful for examining gender and ethnic relations.  One writer who uses a symbolic interaction approach and introduces emotions into her theory is Hochschild.   We will examine her analysis of emotion work and gender.

A British sociologist, Giddens is an important synthesizer of the different approaches, developing his own theory of structuration.  He blends both the micro or interactionist approaches with the structural approaches of Parsons and some critical theorists into a new general theory.  We will read one article of Giddens, “Dilemmas of the Self,” where he examines some of the problems and opportunities faced by individuals in the context of the structures and culture of global society.  Giddens has also become an important contributor to the British political scene, advising the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and the current Labour government, thus combining the sociological worlds of theory and political practice.

An alternative to the interactionist approach is provided by rational choice theory.  Closely connected to some types of economic and political theory, rational choice theorists attempt to demonstrate how individual actions are governed by rational choices within a set of structures or constraints.  That is, each individual faces a set of possible choices or opportunities, but these are constrained by income or wealth, location, and various cultural influences.   These theorists argue that faced with these opportunities and constraints, individuals select what they understand to be the best choices for themselves.  Much of individual human action and interaction, and some group action, can be explained in this manner according to this approach.  We will look at some of the arguments of Coleman, one of the major rational choice theorists.

Classical social theory was primarily a theory of male society and social action – something that feminist theorists have emphasized.  The theoretical approaches of the first half of the course may provide some limited analysis of women and gender relations, but for the most part ignored these subjects.  Feminists in the 1960s and following provided critiques of these conventional, male-stream approaches and have forced sociologists to reconsider how social theory can be constructed or reconstructed.  Smith developed an approach sometimes called standpoint theory – theory from the standpoint of women.  Collins develops her theoretical approach from the standpoint of black women, examining the position and social relationships encountered by women who are essentially outsiders in “white” and male dominated society.   It should also be noted that Sydie, one of the co-authors of the text, wrote a major feminist critique of classical sociological theory, focusing on the male-centred theories of Marx, Durkheim, and Weber.

The final approach from CST that we will examine is that of the French postmodern theorists, Foucault and Baudrillard.  They deal with many of the same issues as the critical theorists, looking at the domination of modern cultural forms, but emphasizing ideology, culture, and control of knowledge.  There are many other postmodern approaches, often from other French writers, but we will focus on only these two.



Last edited January 14, 2006