Sociology 304 – Issues in Modern Sociological Theory

Winter 1999

Instructor: Paul Gingrich, CL 217, 585-4196,

Classes: Tuesday and Thursday, 11:30 a.m. - 12:45 p.m., CL315

Office Hours: Wednesday, 11:00 a.m. - 12:00 noon, Thursday, 1:00 - 2:00 p.m., or by

appointment. May have to reschedule if URFA and Department meetings


Texts: All of the texts are in the bookstore and there is one copy of each at the Library reserve desk.

  1. Will Kymlicka, Multicultural Citizenship: A Liberal Theory of Minority Rights
  2. Nancy Folbre, Who Pays for the Kids? Gender and the Structures of Constraint
  3. Allucquère Rosanne Stone, The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age
  4. Arthur Kroker, various essays to be distributed as handouts or on the website. In 1997, we used Arthur Kroker and Michael A. Weinstein, Data Trash: The Theory of the Virtual Class and some section of this will be discussed later in the semester.

We will try to cover the main ideas of each of these in class, although some sections will not be covered in the same detail as others and I will provide some guides to reading these texts.

In addition, from time to time there may be class handouts and extra readings, especially in connection with specific topics areas. Additional materials may be placed on reserve in the Library or on the website. These may include some of my own notes and photocopies of other materials.

URL: Go to and click on Sociology 304, Winter 1998 for last year's notes. The notes for this year will be much the same, but I will usually be revising the notes. I will attempt to place the revised notes for each week's classes on the web site by each Friday.

 First, how many are familiar with what a web site is? And how many know how to use a web site? And how many have access at home? Should we schedule a part of a class in the CL109 lab?

 Copies of the assignments and exams from previous years are on the Winter, 1998 section of the web site.

 The materials on the web site will be primarily for use by students in the class. You are encouraged to look at the materials, read them, and print them out. If you use some of the materials in your papers or exams, give credit for these in the same manner as you would for a reference from a book or journal. I will provide a guide to referencing web materials later.

Calendar Description:

An examination of selected controversial themes and issues concerning the main concepts of sociology, the major tendencies of contemporary sociological thought, and the historical antecedents of modern theory. Current issues of sociological analysis and theory construction will be stressed. Themes and issues to be dealt with will vary from time to time as individual faculty members alternate in teaching the course. The prerequisite is any 200-level course in sociology or permission of department head.

 While we will not deal equally with all aspects of the calendar description, hopefully the approach taken in the class is within the general guidelines of this description. The three issues that we examine are important contemporary issues – both in contemporary society and in contemporary social theory. I will attempt to place each within the historical and theoretical context and show some of the controversies associated with different approaches to each of these issues.

Note that the title of the class is not really correct – the title should be Issues in Contemporary Social Theory, that is, contemporary rather than modern. The develop of postmodern approaches means that modern approaches are identified as those that include the classics and social theory through the first two-thirds or so of this century. More recent developments in social theory are more appropriately considered to be part of contemporary social theory.

Class Description:

This semester the class will be built around the three texts and the issues raised by and discussed in each text. Three different issues in contemporary society will be examined and these three issues are separate and not particularly connected to each other. There will be about eight or nine classes devoted to each of the three subject areas.

(i) The first set of issues are those related to multiculturalism and minority group rights as discussed by Will Kymlicka in Multicultural Citizenship. The Canadian philosopher Kymlicka argues that members of minority groups have often been overlooked within liberal and other political theories and group rights are sometimes considered to be in opposition to individual rights. In Multicultural Citizenship, Kymlicka argues that certain minority rights are both consistent with and contribute to liberal democracy. The issues that Kymlicka examines are especially relevant in Canada today, where bilingualism and multiculturalism, as well as the rights of First Nations, are important issues.

(ii) The second issue is the costs of social reproduction for a society, as distinct from the costs of production of commodities. These are discussed by Folbre in Who Pays for the Kids? an analysis of economic and social issues related to the family, child costs, child poverty, fertility levels, female labour force participation, and social welfare programs.

(iii) In the concluding section of the class, we will discuss some of the social issues related to new technologies, virtuality, and cyberspace. These will be approached at two levels: (a) through the stories and theoretical approach of Allucquère Rosanne Stone, and (b) through the theory of the virtual class, as laid out by the Canadian postmodern political and social theorist Arthur Kroker. Through a series of stories and theoretical arguments, Stone examines how individuals create new forms of identity, interaction, and community as they work and play with the new technologies. Kroker presents a broad overall view of the powerful virtual class that has emerged on the basis of new technologies, where the will to virtuality "becomes the primal impulse of pan-capitalism, the mediascape, and post-history."

These issues will be organized around the three textbooks for the class. While none of the three texts are by sociologists, each of these texts present analyses of issues that those concerned with the structure and future of Canadian society should consider. Approximately one month will be devoted to each of the three issues.

Assignments and Grading:

Each of the three sections of the class will have one short paper and an examination. The schedule of due dates for assignments and grading is as follows.

February 4 Midterm examination on Kymlicka 15 points

February 9 Paper on Kymlicka 15 points

March 16 Midterm examination on Folbre 15 points

March 23 Paper on Folbre 15 points

April 20 Assignment on new technologies 15 points

April 20 Final examination on Stone and Kroker 15 points

Discussion and participation 10 points

Total 100 points

Each of the sections of the course are separate, and the examination at the end of each section represents a conclusion to that section. The final examination will not be comprehensive but will primarily cover the last section of the course. There may also be an essay question asking you to provide a discussion of the connection among the three topic areas.

The assignment for Kymlicka will be handed out next Tuesday, January 12. The papers will not be long term papers, but are five to eight page papers on a fairly specific topic. The format for the examinations will be some essay questions and some shorter answer questions that test you on the readings. You can check the web site to see the assignments and examinations from last year. Note that the order of topics has changed from 1997, with Folbre and Kymlicka being reversed in order of presentation.


Introduction – Issues in Contemporary Sociological Theory

Before looking at the specific issues that are to be examined this semester, it may be useful to consider the nature of sociological theory and how these theories change or develop. The following notes provide a short summary of my view of sociological theory, what it involves and how it changes. This summary is built around the schematic diagram Theoretical Frameworks: Structure and Construction.

1. Structure and Construction of Social Theory.

Sociological theory – or social theory – is usually considered to be a systematic set of ideas and statements about the social world that aim to make sense of the social world. To be sociologically useful, these ideas and statements should be such that they can be subjected to empirical observation and testing. In addition, there should be a set of procedures to decide which ideas and statements are considered valid and which ones are not. If a theory is to be useful in the social world, it should also provide some conclusions which help us understand or explain the social world. It would also be useful for the theory to be able to make predictions which can be used that will assist in making policies that concern the social world. Hopefully this social theory can help individuals and society as we all attempt to improve the nature of the social world.

A schematic diagram that I have adapted and modified from J. H. Turner, The Structure of Sociological Theory (fifth edition) is on the handout Theoretical Frameworks: Structure and Construction. The central panel provides a way of thinking about how a theory or theoretical framework can be considered to be structured. The panel on the left outlines a some aspects that might be involved in the emergence of a theory, that is, how a theoretical framework is constructed. The panel on the right notes how a theoretical framework is tested and revised, once it has been initially constructed.

This schematic diagram is overly simplistic, but is intended to show some of the essential aspects of a theory and also to show the difference between the construction (left panel) and refinement (right panel) of a theory, and the internal structure (middle panel) of a theory. In sociological practice, these various aspects are not so distinct or easily separated as might be implied by the schematic diagram. Sociologists are continually moving among processes such as examination of the social world, reflecting on these observations, constructing and modifying social theories, testing theories, making policy proposals, and practicing theories by applying them in various practical settings. In fact, the development of good sociological theory requires all of these.



a. Courses in Social Theory. Courses in sociological theory or social thought tend to concentrate on the internal structure of a theory, examining the assumptions and concepts, and showing how the statements and models of that theory are derived. The internal consistency and rigour of a theoretical approach and the implications for policy and practice that come from that approach are important aspects to consider when examining that theory. In Sociology 250, the structures of the theories of Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Parsons, etc. are examined in line with the middle panel of the diagram.

b. Courses in Social Science Methods. Courses in sociological or social science methods tend to concentrate on the left or right panels, sometimes showing the connections with the middle panel, at other times examining the methods in a manner that is quite distinct from any particular theoretical approach. For example, Social Studies 203 and, to some extent, Social Studies 306, try to show the connections between sociological methods and theory. Social Studies 201, the introductory statistics class, may mention these, but is primarily concerned with the manner in which the methods in the left or right panel work and can be used.

c. Sociology 304. In this class, we will mostly concentrate on theoretical frameworks and structures, as shown in the middle panel. Various theoretical frameworks will be outlined and compared, with a view to considering their overall structure, consistency, and uses. At the same time, keep in mind that some of the approaches we are considering are much more complete or developed than are others. For example, the approaches of Marx and Durkheim are well developed and well understood theoretical structures that can be examined using primarily the middle panel – keeping in mind that no theory is ever complete, and that the processes of all three panels can be used to further develop these theoretical frameworks. But at least the written work of Marx and Durkheim is complete.

In contrast, much contemporary social theory – feminism and approaches to issues of multiculturalism and new technologies – is continually in the process of being revised and developed. These contemporary approaches examine the social world from many different points of view, and use many different methods as a means of attempting to understand and explain society. In addition to traditional forms of observation, sociologists use experiences, participation, and social action to develop new insights and construct new theoretical approaches. These are sometimes contradictory, even within a particular theoretical approach, so that many of the processes in all three panels are used to develop and refine these new theoretical frameworks.

d. Definitions, Assumptions, Concepts. In a formal, structural sense, a social theory begins with definitions of what the social world is (e.g., feminist, neoclassical, or Marxist approaches may differ), and with assumptions concerning how humans act and interact (e.g. rational, competitive, sharing, individualistic, altruistic). In a theoretical approach, these create concepts, the building blocks of a theory (norm, status, culture, socialization, exploitation, alienation). Some concepts may be common to all sociological theories, others may be unique to a specific theory. Even the definition of what is included in the social world or what is considered to be social differs among theoretical approaches (classical view as opposed to feminist approach). From the definitions, assumptions, and concepts, statements and propositions that connect the concepts are constructed.

Note that these definitions, assumptions, concepts, statements, and propositions are not present before the theory was developed. A close examination of these building blocks does not necessarily show how the theory was initially developed. Rather, the definitions, assumptions, concepts, statements, and propositions form essential parts of the formal structure of a well developed, logical, and rigorous social theory. For example, Marx did not first start his studies by deciding that the commodity or labour power were basic concepts. In Marxian theory, these are crucial concepts and much of Marxian theory depends on these. But these concepts were developed by Marx only after many years of study, political practice, discussion, reflection, and refinement. There is always a certain danger in looking only at the formal structure of a theory, in that we may not understand how the assumptions and concepts emerged. Hopefully the study of three areas of contemporary social theory in Sociology 304 will provide some idea of what a formal structure is and how a social theory is developed and modified.

e. Examples of Statements and Propositions. The following examples may help illustrate what is meant by the formal structure of theory.

 Two short examples from Folbre, Who Pays for the Kids? show how statements and propositions can be constructed from definitions, assumptions, and concepts within the respective theoretical frameworks of neoclassical economics and Marxian theory. First, Folbre notes that the Rational Economic Man (REM) of neoclassical economic models might be described as follows:

He is a rational decision-maker who weighs costs and benefits. ... All his decisions are motivated by the desire to maximize his own utility. (p. 18).

About the Marxist, Mr. Prol, Folbre says,

He ... has nothing to sell except his labour power. ... His capitalist employers pay him less than the value of what he produces, extracting a surplus in the form of profits. (p. 29). 

Some concepts in these statements are costs, benefits, utility, labour power, value, surplus, and profits. Some of the assumptions are rational decision-maker, maximizing utility, and nothing to sell but labour power. Each of these are defined within the respective theoretical framework, and a study of that theory shows how the concept is constructed and used. The two quotes from Folbre show how the concepts can be connected to construct meaningful statements of propositions within the theory. Hopefully these statements can be applied in such a manner that they say something about the operation of the social world.

 Another example comes from Kymlicka, Multicultural Citizenship:

One source of cultural diversity is the coexistence within a given state of more than one nation, where ‘nation’ means a historical community, more or less institutionally complete, occupying a given territory or homeland, sharing a distinct language and culture. A ‘nation’ in this sociological sense is closely related to the idea of a ‘people’ or ‘culture’—indeed, these concepts are often defined in terms of each other. (Kymlicka, Multicultural Citizenship, p. 11). 

Here culture, diversity, and nation are concepts that are defined as part of a theory of the nation and of multiculturalism. These concepts are connected to illustrate how diversity can be examined in a sociologically meaningful manner and how these concepts form part of the experience and consciousness of people. Different approaches to theories of the nation and multicultural issues may lead to different definitions of the concepts, so that other theorists might connect these concepts in quite a different manner and develop quite different conclusions and policy implications.

 f. Formats and Schemes. The statements and propositions of a theoretical framework can be connected in various ways, into formats and schemes. In the case of neoclassical economic models, these include demand and supply diagrams – indicating what an individual REM purchases, or how much labour is supplied. In the case of the Marxist model, an example would be the theory of the state. Workers are exploited and powerless in economic and political matters. Capitalists, on the other hand are powerful economically, and this economic power may lead to the capitalists becoming the ruling class of society. While a political regime may nominally be considered to be democratic, political power, ideology and culture may be so strongly controlled by this ruling class that elections are a sham and political choices do not express the real interest for all people. (See example 4, Folbre, p. 30, middle paragraph).

In the multicultural example (example 5), Kymlicka discusses different types of diversity (mainly national and polyethnic), showing how liberal political theory can be modified to include some diversity.

Example 6 (Answers 1 and 2 of Stone, pp. 15-16) illustrates two quite different and possibly opposing views of the social implications of new technologies. The first answer uses traditional concepts and takes a fairly narrow view of the social effects of the new technologies to argue that they have effects that are little different from those of earlier technologies. In contrast, the second answer expands the view of the new technologies and defines the social world in a broader sense. In fact, the definition becomes very broad with the final claim being that the electronic actions that are part of the new technologies are part of the social world.

As can be seen in these examples, each of these formats or schemes creates a number of hypotheses (working class interests are not expressed within a bourgeois democracy), explanations (alienation of workers is a result of the labour process that exist in capitalism), solutions (multicultural policies are a way of according rights and ensuring peaceful forms of accommodation of diverse groups), predictions (the Liberal party will pursue austerity just as much as conservative parties) and control (it is necessary to form a socialist party so that workers’ interests and rights can be put into practice).

g. Summary. While this schematic diagram provides a general framework, its central focus is well developed theoretical models (classical models) and may downgrade the contribution of approaches that are in the process of being developed. There is often a major difference between the final theoretical approach that is developed over a long period of time, and the way in which the theory is initially developed and constructed. Much of contemporary sociological theory can be considered to be of the latter type.

h. Questions concerning contemporary sociological theory:

2. Emergence of Social Theories and Changes in Social Theory

a. Introduction. There are many theoretical approaches within sociology. (i) The classical theories of Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Simmel, Parsons, and Mead, and their followers still dominate much sociological discussion. (ii) There are schools of sociological thought that are not so much associated with one individual, but represent contributions from a variety of sociologists – for example, symbolic interaction approaches, ethnomethodology, structuralism, and critical theory. (iii) Some recent sociological approaches have combined aspects of these different classical writers and sociological approaches. Much theoretical writing in the 1960s through 1980s appears to use various mixtures of earlier approaches. (iv) More recently, contemporary sociological thought has felt the influence of a variety of new approaches – feminism, postmodernism, cultural studies, new ethnic and multicultural approaches, and queer theory, along with new subject areas such as technology, science, sexuality, and the media.

Each of the approaches to sociological theory provides a way of looking at the social world and a way of organizing our ideas about the social world. These approaches give insights into the nature of social interaction and provide guidelines concerning how we can consider social structure to be organized. Well developed sociological theories provide models of the social world that allow us to explain and understand various aspects of the way in which people relate to each other. Some sociological theorists argue that their sociological models really do represent the way in which society functions. In my view, this is a questionable claim and I generally consider sociological theory in a more pragmatic manner. That is, each theoretical approach provides some useful insights and is worthwhile only so long as it helps us understand the social world.

In order to examine how different theoretical approaches develop, consider some of the new issues and approaches that form part of contemporary sociology. Then consider some of the factors that have led to the emergence of these issues and approaches.

b. Issues and Approaches in Contemporary Sociological Theory

i. Issues

ii. Approaches

c. Summary Statements Concerning Contemporary Social Theory

Some Questions:

d. Irrelevance of Social Theory?

It can be argued that social theory is not particularly relevant for discovering or illuminating social issues and problems. Rather, its main role appears to have been to systematize some widely held views – through the use of empirical investigation and by examining and stating the underlying assumptions and hypotheses, and putting these into a systematic model.

In order to illustrate this, consider a few of the major issues that have defined much of sociological research in Canada over the last thirty years. A few of the most important ideas and approaches that have been investigated by sociologists and which have occupied much of the attention of sociologists are:

None of these were predicted or discovered using previously existing theories. Rather, their discovery and the attention devoted to them came from the attention these issues received as a result of social movements or changed social conditions. The development of the study of each of these issues was empirical in that empirical observation and assessment was important in developing a sociological analysis. As each issue was analyzed and solutions proposed, existing theories (from Europe and the United States) were bent and adapted to include these issues. In the case of female-male inequalities, new theoretical approaches were developed to explain and understand this issue.

3. Conclusion

The approach I take to social theory is that it should be pragmatic and flexible, rather than rigorous and fixed. Social theory should adapt to changing society, and reflect the developments that go on there, hopefully leading to ways in which we can develop a better understanding of our society and develop our abilities to improve society. We must be sensitive to the social changes that occur and we must attempt to develop an understanding of people and society. In doing this, it is useful to develop a systematic theoretical structure and use the scientific method when it is appropriate. As sociologists, we continually need to move back and forth between observation and reasoning, testing theories in society, and testing theories against each other. But the real test is not the internal consistency or logic of a theory, but the theory’s ability to lead to an improved understanding and explanation of society, and to help in the improvement of society. If the theory is not useful in these latter senses, then it may not be worth maintaining. In that case, we should revise or abandon that theoretical approach.

Each of the issues and texts selected for this semester illustrate a number of aspects of the above approach to sociological theory. That is, Sociology 304 this semester is concerned not so much with the internal logic and consistency of theoretical approaches, or with the consistency of assumptions and hypotheses of well developed theoretical approaches and models. We will be concerned with some of this in Who Pays for the Kids? and Multicultural Citizenship, but in general we will be more concerned with how social theory can be developed and used to explain some real social issues and problems, both in contemporary society and historically.

4 Summary of Sociology 304 Topics

a. Kymlicka in Multicultural Citizenship focuses on both theory and on a contemporary problem - that of multiculturalism and group rights.

Kymlicka’s analysis is rooted in contemporary social analysis in that it examines the ethnic and racial diversity of societies, and the increasing connection among these societies (with modern forms of transportation and communication). These have raised the issues of identity and rights to the forefront in social movements, individual experiences, and in public policy. His analysis is theoretical in that he considers the nature of the individual and of culture; the meaning of freedom, liberty, the good life; the connection between the individual and culture, groups and society; and the nature of society as a whole (see pp. 80-81). He sets this analysis in the liberal tradition, one that is more clearly political than sociological. At the same time, much of sociological analysis can be considered to have emerged out of the liberal tradition, either positively (Durkheim, Weber, Parsons) or in reaction to some of the problems associated with liberalism (Marx). See Seidman on this. Kymlicka develops an analysis that leads to policy implications and to implications for the way that we look at ourselves and others, and how we as individuals, and in groups and in society, relate to each other. In societies that will be increasingly diverse in terms of ethnicity in the next century, these are especially important issues to consider.

b. Folbre. In the case of Folbre’s Who Pays for the Kids?

Folbre’s analysis does attempt to lay out a schema of the sort described above. But it is also quite a flexible schema and one that would seem to be an improvement over either the neoclassical or Marxian model.

c. New Technologies. Stone and Kroker.

Kroker and Weinstein in Data Trash, focus on the virtual class, modern technologies, communications, and more specifically on computers and virtual reality.

These are certainly highly relevant, with the impact of new technology being felt by most of society. Whether these changes constitute and improvement for society (with some suffering but more benefiting) or whether these have to potential to destroy many aspects of society (with net loss for many or most) is one of the over-riding social issues today. While Kroker and Weinstein cannot provide a full answer to this, they do lay out some of the issues and provide some guidelines for resisting the negative aspects of these new technologies and attempting to turn these technologies in a direction that can benefit people.

The approach taken by Kroker and Weinstein can be considered to be postmodern in a number of ways. Their topic is one that is related to the nature of contemporary society, or as some would say, postmodern or postindustrial society. Kroker and Weinstein consider the nature of contemporary society to have changed from that of earlier capitalism -- they look on late twentieth century society as having broken with previous patterns of western social and economic development. As a result, the analysis and language that was useful for understanding in the past has to be replaced by new analysis and new language. They use elements of the analysis of writers that are considered to be part of the postmodern approach, from Nietzsche to Virilio. They are interdisciplinary, use the latest terminology and develop their own language, and they consider many of the old theoretical approaches inadequate to understanding the nature of contemporary society and the future.

Each of the three books deal with issues that are relevant for contemporary society. These books are not by sociologists, but the authors develop approaches which are sociological in nature and have implications for sociological theory. Each of the issues dealt with are issues that are of major concern in our society today, and it is changes in society, social movements, and concerns of individuals which have brought these to the forefront as problems in sociological theory. The analysis of these authors is not the only possible approach to each of these issues, but each has something to say that is relevant to society and to sociology, and the approach of each of these authors is likely to be incorporated into future sociological theories in some manner.


Notes from January 7 and 12, 1999. Last edited on January 11, 1999

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