Sociology 319

Contemporary Social Theory

January 6, 2003




Office Hours.  Will attempt to keep these hours but meetings may be scheduled for these times in some weeks.   My other class is at 9:30 am.


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 the weekend of each week.  Remember that these are notes and not a finished work.  As a result, there may be inconsistencies and some incomplete sections.  But they provide a summary and a guide to my own thinking about the issues.


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 provide a survey of sociological theory – from classical to postmodern; the notes from Sociology 318 provide details on classical theorists. 


Text and Readings: 

Bryan S. Turner, editor, The Blackwell Companion to Social Theory, second edition.

This book provides a reasonably comprehensive survey of contemporary sociological theory and the background, issues, debates, and discussions around contemporary sociological theory.  Most of the chapters are good in that they discuss the concepts and approaches of the different authors and sociological perspectives.  A few of the chapters do not do this, so they will not be discussed in as much detail.  The chapters that will be discussed in the first half of the course – chapters 1, 3, 7, 8, 11, 12 are all quite good, with the possible exception of chapter 8, on rational choice theory, and chapter 12, the second chapter on feminism.  Carefully read the chapters we discuss in class and attempt to understand the differences in concepts and approaches of the various authors.

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.  These will begin with the section on theories of action and praxis – I will hand out short readings from Weber, Parsons, Simmel, Goffman, Garfinkel, and Giddens.  This will give you an opportunity to become familiar with the writers in the microsociological tradition. 


Assignments and Grading

First paper                                            15%                 February 7

Midterm examination                            20%                 February 26 and 28

Second paper                                       15%                 March 14

Third paper                                          15%                 April 21

Final examination                                  25%                 April 21  (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 these do provide me some discretion in awarding the exact grade.


The midterm examination will cover the material for the first half of the class.  The first part of the examination (February 26) will be short answer and the second part (February 28) 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.


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.


Calendar and Class Description

An analysis of the development of sociological theory in the 20th century.  The course will examine the various schools that emerged out of classical theory as well as recent critical responses to these developments.  The prerequisite for this class is Sociology 250 or permission of the department head.

This course will examine a variety of themes and debates in contemporary sociological theory.  The topics around which the course will be organized are the chapters in The Blackwell Companion to Social Theory, second edition. 

Unlike some of the other classes at the 100 or 200 level, there is no set of required group of topics for this class, and different instructors have approached the class in quite different ways.  What I hope to do is provide a survey of contemporary debates and issues in sociological theory.  There are more topics than can be covered in a semester of thirteen weeks, so I will not discuss the ideas from some chapters in great detail and others may be skipped entirely.  With the exception of psychoanalysis, where I have no background, I will try to touch on each of the chapters, but there will undoubtedly be parts of the course that are not covered in as much detail as desirable.  


Class Outline

All chapter numbers refer to The Blackwell Companion to Social Theory, second edition.  The second edition differs somewhat from the first, so make sure you are reading the correct chapters.   As can be noted in the following list, the class is organized by issue, rather than by author.  In Sociology 250, the first half of the course was organized by author – Weber, Durkheim, Marx, Simmel, and Parsons; in Sociology 319 and in the textbook, the material is presented more by topic.  At the same time, within each topic, the focus tends to be on particular writers.  This may be because each sociologist uses concepts in a somewhat different manner, so that rather than building on previous writers, later sociologists have often created their own particular theoretical perspective.


Class Dates                Topic                                                               Reading

January 6 – 10 Introduction; Review of Classical Theory           Introduction; Ch. 1

January 13 – 17            Theories of Action                                            Ch. 3

January 20 – 24            Theories of Praxis                                             Ch. 3

January 27 – 31            Symbolic Interactionism                                    Ch. 7

February 3 – 7             Rational Choice Theory                                    Ch. 8

February 10 – 14         Feminist Theory                                                Ch. 11, 12

February 17 – 21         Midterm Break

February 24 – 28         Review and Midterm

March 3 – 7                 Critical and Historical Sociology                        Ch. 14, 18

March 10 – 14             Systems and Structures                         Ch. 4, 6

March 17 – 21             Postmodernism; Sociology of Body                   Ch. 16, 17

March 24 – 28             Culture, Time, and Space                                  Ch. 13, 15

March 31 – April 4       Philosophy of Social Science                             Ch.2

April 7 – 9                    Review

April 21                        Final Examination, 9 a.m. – noon


I will begin the class on Wednesday by discussing the Introduction and Chapter 1 of the text.  “Introduction” reviews issues and problems of sociological theory, especially those of contemporary theory.  The three main issues discussed are:


  1. Nature of the social – how different sociological theorists and approaches define the subject of the discipline of sociology – what is the nature of society and the social.  In general, there has been an expansion in the scope of sociology in recent years – those who took Sociology 250 with me last semester will recall how microsociological theories have recently examined issues such as daily interaction and emotions.


  1. Continuity and accumulation in social theory.  At times it appears that each sociologist has a different approach and does not build on earlier sociological analysis.  This is in contrast to some other disciplines, where there is a continuity of approach, with each new development building on previous knowledge and using this to expand knowledge.  In contrast, sociology sometimes appears to jump from issue to issue, with each writer developing a different language and approach.


  1. Prospects for social theory?  Turner notes that sociological theory may sometimes appear to be irrelevant or impossible to construct – postmodern theorists sometimes make this same argument and talk about the end of social theory.  At the same time, social theory is applicable to a wide range of social issues and demonstrates its usefulness in that manner.  Turner lists some areas where social theory could contribute to understanding the social world.


Chapter 1 of the text deals with the background to social theory – what were the ideas that led to the development of the sociology we now consider to constitute the classical sociological approaches.  While I will not discuss these in detail, I will provide a quick overview of these and provide a short review of classical sociological approaches. 


For this week, read the Introduction and chapter 1.  Consider the similarities of the different perspectives and how each perspective tackles central issues in sociology such as the nature of the social, action and structure, and social order.  If you need more background on the classical sociologists, consult one of the standard theory texts (e.g. Bert N. Adams and R. A. Sydie, Kenneth H. Tucker, Jr. or George Ritzer) or my notes for Sociology 250.


On Wednesday, I will give you the first extra readings – short sections from Weber and Parsons; we will discuss these and the first part of Chapter 3 (theories of action) later this week and early next week.


We will begin the semester by discussing microsociological approaches to social theory and follow this with an examination of structural and systems approaches.  This is in contrast to the usual approach – classical sociologists were primarily concerned with structural issues, and these writers who established the field of sociology are usually examined first.  Chapter 3, by Ira Cohen, examines sociological approaches to action and praxis, mostly at the level of what Goffman calls the interaction order.  Cohen discusses how theorists examine the actions of individuals (or actors) who undertake individual or group action in interactions with other individuals in the social world.  Cohen emphasizes two orientations in theories of action


  1. Emphasis on subjective consciousness, interpretation, meaning, and action – primarily Weber and Parsons.


  1. Emphasis on performance, enactment, or accomplishment of social conduct – writers such as Mead, Goffman, Garfinkel, and Giddens.


Cohen reviews these approaches in order to sort through the different theories of social action.  While the two approaches are not mutually exclusive, and some writers emphasize both aspects of action and interaction, there is an analytical distinction between them.


Chapter 7 examines what may be the most important microsociological approach – symbolic interactionism.  This comes from Simmel, Mead, Cooley, Blumer, Goffman, Denzin, and Hochschild, who consider interpretation, reflection, and even emotion as basic to understanding social interaction.  These writers regard symbols and their intepretation and understanding as key to developing a theory of social interaction.  While structures, institutions, and norms affect social action, individuals have considerable flexibility in how they adjust their responses to other humans.  Some symbolic interaction theorists also comment on the social structures of society, as patterns of individual and group action, but their primary interest is the interaction order.


Chapter 8 examines rational choice theory.  While symbolic interactionists emphasize interpretation, symbols, and interaction among social actors, rational choice theorists look on social actors as individuals who consider the expected utility and disutility of various courses of action, in light of the constraints facing them and of that action, and in light of possible responses of others.  In this perspective, individual actors select what they perceive to be the best course of action for themselves, one that maximizes their utility and minimizes their disutility.  Rule (p. 80) notes that rational choice theorists build their theory on three doctrines: (i) social behaviour is an attempt to achieve certain ends, based on stable hierarchies of preference; (ii) actors rationally calculate which course of action is most likely to maximize their overall rewards; and (iii) larger scale processes (what many other sociologists call structures, systems, institutions, norms) can be explained as resulting from the results of such calculation and action.  Rational choice theory is utilitarian and is a sociological equivalent of microeconomic models of choice.


The next section will be a discussion of contemporary approaches to feminist theory.  These perspectives search for the source of oppression and inequality, not just for women but also for other groups in society.  The theories are concerned with issues of sex, gender, sexuality, and patriarchy as well as the diversity of the experience of women in different societies.  Feminist theory is sometimes classified as liberal, radical, or socialist, with liberal and socialist feminism being attached, respectively, to liberal and marxist theory.  Chapter 11 surveys these feminist perspectives and chapter 12 examines some contemporary radical feminist perspectives, considering various arguments for the basic distinction between men and women, masculine and feminine.  Among the arguments analyzed are biological differences, sexuality (with an emphasis on heterosexuality and homosexuality), and psychoanalysis.  Chapter 5 on psychoanalysis complements this aspect of Chapter 12, since a large part of the discussion in the latter concerns the issue of sex and gender identity in the formation of the self, and the roots of this in the unconscious, desire for mother, etc.  The discussion also draws on other sociological approaches, using concepts similar to those of symbolic interaction or ethnomethodology.


Chapters 14 and 18 on critical theory, historical sociology, systems, and structures build on the foundations of classical sociology.  Critical theory comes primarily from marxism, although it uses ideas from Weber and other theorists.  Initially it developed in Europe and was known as the Frankfurt school – showing how capitalism and rationality led to a form of administered society and mass culture that stifled human creativity.  Critical theory has been revitalized by Jurgen Habermas, who provides a critique of contemporary mass culture and attempts to link theory with political practice with a view to creating a society where humans can more freely associate with each other.  Historical sociology was used by the classical writers (especially Marx and Weber) and constitutes an important part of critical theory and political sociology. 


Marx, Weber, Durkheim, and Parsons are the classical writers who established sociology as an academic discipline.  For the most part, they were structural in their approach, arguing that society developed institutions, norms, structures, and patterns of social action that were constraining on people.  While they emphasized different aspects of these, and developed quite different conceptions of society, many aspects of their theoretical approach were similar in that they tended to view social structures as determining or strongly influencing individual and group action.  Structural approaches to the sociological study of society are examined in chapters 4 and 6.  More recently, structuralism as a theoretical perspective developed from anthropology and linguistics, and was used by political sociologists such as Althusser and Foucault.  In the case of the latter, the theory became post-structural, with arguments that structures by themselves cannot explain all aspects of the social world, that sociologists need to go beyond structures to analyze sources of power.  But structural approaches cannot be neglected, since social structures of some form do exist, and social theory must attempt to explain and understand them.


Postmodern social theory is addressed in Chapter 16.  Theorists adopting this perspective argue that we are in a new social world and the explanations, structures, and approaches that were useful in explaining and understanding the modern world are no longer adequate.  Postmodern theorists question the universal application of social theory, or even theorizing about the social at all.  They argue that historical progress is an illusion, and political action may be meaningless.  Instead, these theorists emphasize difference, plurality, fragmentation, local situations, contingency, and representations.  While postmodern theorists may not provide guidelines for development of social theory, their work is important in demonstrating some weaknesses and limitations to social theory, and in showing that some of the claims of earlier social theorists were inflated.


Turner also addresses issues connected to sociology of the body in chapter 17.  This is a new chapter in this second edition of the text and inclusion of this chapter demonstrates how sociology has changed over the last decade – it is doubtful that a chapter like this would have be included in a text on sociological theory written in 1990.  The scope of sociology has expanded considerably over the last few decades, with feminist, post-colonial, queer, and cultural theory now forming an important part of sociology.  As part of this expansion of the scope of sociology, some sociologists have argued that bodies themselves, not just minds and social interaction, can form part of the subject of sociology.  Among the issues that have emerged is how the body can be constructed or reconstructed; medical, technological, and ethical issues; separation of mind and body; gender and sexuality; and the body and human rights.  Turner notes (p. xvii) that he concentrates on issues of “frailty of the human body, the precariousness of social institutions, and the interconnectedness of social actors” in the chapter on the sociology of the body.  In the chapter he argues that sociological discussions of the body have been inconsistent and fragmentary and he develops an outline of how a more comprehensive sociological theory of the body might be constructed.



Social theory often ignored time and space, and assumed that culture emerged from the economic base of society.  The theorists reviewed in Chapters 13 and 15 attempt to correct this and develop an understanding of time, space, and culture that can help explain the contemporary social world.  Simmel was one of the few classical sociologists who recognized the importance of space, and urban social theory builds on his analysis.  Contemporary theories of globalization and cyberspace recognize space (or its disappearance) as an important feature.  Conceptions of time have also changed – first, capitalism and the industrial revolution led to the development of a concept of time that was more definite and fixed than in precapitalist and traditional societies.  More recently, time appears to have accelerated, with rapidly changing forms of communication, consumerism, and production.   Culture is addressed in Chapter 13, as not merely emerging from the economic organization of society, but as an integral and somewhat autonomous aspect of social life.  New conceptions of culture emphasize the centrality of the cultural order in human communication, culture as part of social power, culture as possibly primary over the economic, and culture as plural and diverse.  Canada has developed multiculturalism as social process, and this denotes quite an approach to culture different from what characteristized most of our history.  Cultural studies has become an umbrella term for contemporary approaches to study of the social world.


Philosophical approaches to the study of the social are left until the end of the semester and will be touched on only briefly this semester.  This is for two reasons – first, these are difficult questions and they are addressed in considerable detail in the Honours seminars.  If you are interested in these, take one of those seminars.  Second, my own view is that the philosophical differences are not as important as political differences and perspectives in determining approaches to the study of sociology.  My view is that compared with philosophical differences, the different approaches to sociology are as much or more a product of the society in which the sociologist works and the engagement of sociology with applied aspects of research and public issues (see Turner, p. 12, where he notes that sociology thrives when engaged with research or public issues).  There are obviously some major philosophical differences among sociologists and it is difficult to determine a single position that would provide a complete guide to social theorizing.  In my view, we are best to have a diversity of perspectives in social theory, and ensure that theory is closely connected to people and the social world they continually create and recreate.


Next day – issues in sociological theory




Rule, James B. 1997. Theory and Progress in Social Science. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.  H61 R76 1997.


Last edited January 10, 2003


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