Sociology 319

Notes from January 11, 2000


Text and Readings:

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

This book provides a reasonably comprehensive survey of contemporary sociological theory and the issues, debates, and discussions that exist in contemporary 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, 4, 8, 9, 6, 11 are all quite good, with the possible exception of chapter 9 on rational choice theory. So read these carefully and attempt to understand the differences in concepts and approaches of the various authors.

2. 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 on the internet, on reserve in the University Library, or provided as class handouts. 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 "Action and Praxis." In conjunction with chapters 4 and 8, I will assign short readings from Weber, Simmel, Goffman, Garfinkel, and other writers in that tradition. This will give you an opportunity to become familiar with the writers in the microsociological tradition.

Assignments and Grading

First paper 15% February 10

Midterm examination 20% March 2

Second paper 15% March 16

Third paper 15% April 25

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

Discussion and participation 10%

Total 100%

The papers will each be approximately five page papers. While relatively short, these papers should demonstrate a good knowledge of the topic and present the concepts and arguments in a succint manner.

The discussion and participation section will be based on your classroom participation and responses to the discussion questions that I prepare. I will try to prepare some questions on each of the chapters and hand these out at the Thursday class. Then at the Tuesday class we will review and discuss these.

The midterm examination will cover the material for the first half of the class. The final examination will concentrate on the topics in the last half of the class, but there may be a question asking you to integrate materials from the whole semester.

Each of the papers and examinations will have considerable choice.

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 any of the notes that I plan to post available on the web site and in the Library by the Friday of each week. Remember that these are notes and not a finished work. As a result, there may be inconsistencies and some incomplete sections, especially since this is the first time I have taught this course and used this textbook. 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 for Sociology 304 concern three issues (i) minority rights and multiculturalism, (ii) feminist analysis of social reproduction, and (iii) sociology of virtuality and cyberspace.

Special Needs

If there is any student in this course who, because of a disability, may have a need for accommodations, please discuss this with the instructor. You should also contact the Coordinator of Special Needs Services at 585-463l.

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. As much as possible, the Thursday class will be primarily a lecture and the readings will be discussed in the Tuesday class. Please attempt to be familiar with the readings by each Tuesday.

Unlike some of the other classes at the 100 or 200 level, there is no set or 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 probably more topics than can be covered in a thirteen week semester, so some of the chapters may not be covered in detail and others may be skipped entirely. With the exception of psychoanalysis, where I have 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 we should.


Class Outline

All chapter numbers refer to The Blackwell Companion to Social Theory. There will also be extra readings assigned for some sections of the course. If not provided as class handouts, these will be available on reserve in the University Library or through links to various web sites. It may not be possible to cover all the topics and readings listed below, but we will attempt to work to this outline.

As can be noted in the following list, the class is organized by issue, rather than by author. In Sociology 250, the first one-half of the course was organized by author Weber, Durkheim, Marx, 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 attempted to create their own particular perspective on sociology.

Class Dates Topic Reading

January 11 Introduction

January 13 January 18 Classical Social Theory Ch. 1

January 20 January 25 Action and Praxis Ch. 4

January 27 February 1 Symbolic Interactionism Ch. 8

February 3 February 8 Rational Choice Theory Ch. 9

February 10 February 17 Feminist and Psychoanalytic Theory Ch. 6, 11

February 22 February 24 Midterm Break

February 29 March 2 Review and Midterm

March 7 March 14 Critical Theory and Historical Sociology Ch. 2, 10, 15

March 16 March 21 Systems and Structures Ch. 5, 7

March 23 March 28 Postmodern Social Theory Ch. 14

March 30 April 4 Culture, Time, and Space Ch. 12, 13

April 6 April 11 Philosophy of Social Science Ch.3

April 25 Final Examination

In terms of the general approach to the class, there will be a short review of the classical sociological perspectives of Marx, Weber, and Durkheim along with other writers that might not be considered as central to the study of sociology de Tocqueville, Simmel, and Park. I will provide some discussion questions on Thursday, for discussion next week. Try to 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. Ritzer) or my notes for Sociology 250.

Following this short review, the microsociological theories are discussed first and the structural and systems approaches in the last half of the semester. This is opposite to the usual approach, since the classical sociologists were primarily concerned with structural issues, and these writers established the field of sociology. Chapter 4, by Ira Cohen, examines the various 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 to theories of action (i) an emphasis on subjective consciousness and interpretation and (ii) an emphasis on performance, enactment, or carrying out of social conduct. Cohen reviews the approaches of Weber, Parsons, Mead, Garfinkel, Giddens, and various other writers, in order to sort through their different theories of social action.

Chapter 8 examines what may be the most important microsociological approach symbolic interactionism. These are writers such as 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 such as institutions and norms may influence social action, individuals have considerable flexibility in terms of adjusting their responses to others. Symbolic interaction theorists also attempt to construct a model of society as a whole, as patterns of individual and group action, but their primary interest is the interaction order.

Chapter 9 discusses a somewhat different microsociological approach that of rational choice theory. While symbolic interactionists emphasize interpretation, symbols, and interaction among social actors, rational choice theorists consider social actors as individuals who consider various courses of action in light of the constraints facing them and the expected utilities and disutilities of that action. In this perspective, individual actors attempt to select the best course of action for themselves, one that they expect to maximize their utilities. Rule (p. 80) notes that rational choice theorists build their theory on three doctrines: (i) social behaviour is 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 the 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 appears to be more concerned with radical feminist theory, 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 6 on psychoanalysis complements this aspect of Chapter 11, 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.

The chapters 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. It initially 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 which 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 an society characterized by a free association of humans. 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. Chapters 5 and 7 deal with some of these structural approaches. 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 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 14. Theorists taking 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 do not provide many guidelines for social theory, their work is important in showing some of the limitations and weaknesses of social theory, and recognizing that some of the claims of earlier social theory were inflated.

Social theory often ignored time and space, and assumed that culture emerged from the economic base of society. The theorists reviewed in Chapters 12 and 13 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 with the development of a more fixed concept of time in capitalism and the industrial revolution. More recently, time has seemed to be accelerated, with rapidly changing forms of communication, consumerism, and production. Culture is addressed in Chapter 12, 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 a different approach to culture in Canada than was characteristic of most of our history. In some ways, 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 in determining the different approaches to the study of sociology as sometimes claimed. 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.


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


Last edited on January 13, 2000.

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