Sociology 250

Introduction to Social Theory

Notes from September 7, 1999


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, send an email, or contact m e after class. I am on campus most of the time, but split my time between the Sociology Department and the Faculty Association. The latter takes up a considerable portion of my time and, as a result, I am often not in my office in the Classroom Building.

Textbooks You will be expected to read the assigned readings in Hadden and Wallace and Wolf. Hadden is fairly short and concise and should not be difficult to read. We will cover all of this book. Only some parts of Wallace and Wolf will be cove red in class. These authors survey a great variety of contemporary sociological theories. It will not be possible to discuss all of these theories in a one semester class. I have provided a rough outline of the sections we will cover, but these may be cha nged somewhat as we proceed. This is the first time I have used this book and I am not sure exactly how many sections of Wallace and Wolf we will be able to cover.

In addition to these two texts, from time to time I will provide class handouts or place articles or other readings on reserve in the Library. You will be expected to read and be familiar with these as well.

I will also place one or two other 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. I will put a co py of this on reserve. If you wish to have another perspective on theory from the two textbooks, this should provide 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 an excellent place to start. I would have assigned this book if the cost of the other texts had not been so great. I will also place 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 many other classes such as Sociology 201 and other theory classes. Although written over 20 years ago, it provides a good summary of each of the three main sociological currents. This book shows how the theories emerged from and are connected with the develop of industrialization and capitalism in Europe and North America. Giddens may be a more difficult boo k to read but sociology majors should be familiar with this book by the time they graduate.

I last taught this class in the Fall semester of 1995, so have been away from it for awhile. In Fall, 1995, I put my notes on reserve in the Library. I will place these on reserve again, and you are free to consult these. Note though that these notes m ay not exactly match what we do this semester. Some of the sections from that semester will not be covered in this semester, and some parts of what we do this semester were not covered in 1995. But these notes provide a guide to the various classical theo rists and to some contemporary theorists. Use them as you like, but do not expect them to be definitive.

I have also set up a web site which will include this semester's notes. Once a week or so, I will update the web site with the notes from that week. I will also place a printed copy of the week's notes on reserve in the Library.


In terms of using the notes that I have written, you are free to copy them and use them for the course. If you quote from them in a paper for this or another class, you should cite them as you would any reference from a book or article. I provide a sug gested citation on the first page of each section. Also remember that these are notes and not a finished manuscript that has been reviewed by other sociologists. As a result, there may be some 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. But students in the past have found these notes useful so I will do my best to make the notes from this semester available on the web site and on reserve.


The assignments are spaced so that there is usually something that you should be reading or working on.

The three short papers are to be no more than three pages each. The first paper will be on some topic connected with Marxian theory. I will give you a list of topics next week. The second short paper will be on some aspect of the approach of Web er or Durkheim. The third paper will be on some more recent approach. Each paper is to be three typewritten pages, double spaced. It should be properly referenced, and I will give you some guidelines on how this can be done.

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 a concise statement or argument concerning the topic. Too often papers that are longer tend to ramble and atte mpt to cover too many aspects of a topic. I find that a short concise argument is more useful and can provide most of the essential aspects of an argument. 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 first midterm is on October 14. It will cover the approaches of Marx and Weber. The second midterm, on November 18 (I will be away this day), will deal with Durkheim, structural functionalism and some of the microsociological a pproaches. The final examination is December 14 from 2 to 5 pm. The final examination will cover material from the whole class, although the emphasis will be on the contemporary approaches discussed in the latter parts of the class. Many of these c ontemporary approaches incorporate or build on the ideas of Marx, Weber and Durkheim.

Special Needs

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.

Course Outline

Today I will provide a quick overview of the course and briefly discuss some aspects of the nature of sociological theory. On Thursday, I would like to cover the background to the major sociological approaches. We will spend a day on this and then get started on Marxian approaches to social theory next week. 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.

The three major classical theorists of the nineteenth and early twentieth century are Marx, Weber and Durkheim. We will spend approximately four class periods on each of these. Following this are a variety of twentieth century approaches. Structural fu nctionalism and conflict theory grow out of the classical approaches. Social interaction, feminist theory and postmodernism are approaches that developed in this 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 a one semester class, especially not all of the contemporary approaches.

One approach that is not covered in a separate section, but has become an essential aspect of sociological theory in recent years is the discussion of issues related to sex and gender. This is sometimes called feminism, although by the end of the centu ry there are now so many different feminist approaches that there is not just one theory that can be called feminist theory. Rather than having a separate section on feminism, the approaches of each writer to issues of sex and gender will be discussed as part of that theoretical approach. This is the approach adopted by Wallace and Wolf for the contemporary theories. Unfortunately, Hadden does not appear to put much, if any emphasis on these issues, so I will supplement his book with some lecture material concerning the approach of the classical writers toward issues of sex and gender.

The classical approaches and some of the contemporary approaches to sociology ignored women or made questionable assumptions about women. Sociological theory has tended to be a theory based on Western European males leaving out women and much of huma nity outside Europed and North America. Sociological theory was developed in Western Europe by males, so 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.

In addition, the approach of these classical writers was to limit the realm of what they regarded as social, or subject to study by sociology. The classical approach was generally to argue that society did not involve the private sphere of household an d family, and these were generally not part of sociological study. Since these have tended to be the sphere in which women have played a disproportionate role, the effect of this was to limit the discussion of the role of women in society. By the mid-twen tieth century, some sociologists (such as Parsons) began to redefine the realm of the social, and in the last thirty years, feminists have shown the weaknesses and one-sided nature of many of these traditional approaches. While feminist theories have not provided an overall model of society, the insights of the feminist approaches can often be used to alter or develop the traditional approaches, thus improving them.

Today, sociological theory is in a state of transition, with a great variety of theoretical views and different approaches. Many of these have been widely attacked by feminists, postcolonial writers, postmodernists, and others, and none of these approa ches by itself is capable of dealing with all aspects of sociology. By examining feminist approaches along with the classical theories, I hope that we can gain some idea of how a better sociological theory could be constructed and made useful in the study of social issues.

1. Enlightenment and Early Sociological Approaches

Hadden provides a summary discussion of the setting within which the sociological approach first was developed in early nineteenth century Europe. The enlightenment signalled a new approach to understanding and relating to the world. Sociology deve loped out of these new views, and out of the conservative reaction against these new views. Read Chapter 1 of Hadden to obtain a summary of this historical background. We will not spend much time on Comte and Spencer, although you should read what Hadden has to say about these two writers the first two notable sociologists. Neither of their approaches is considered among the more important in sociology today, although the influence of some of their ideas is still felt.

2. Marx and Marxian approaches

We will examine the influences on Marx (Enlightenment, German philosophy, socialism, political economy), Marx's early writings on alienation, the development of Marx's approach to political economy, the theory of surplus value, exploitation, and cl ass structures and the development of capitalism.

While the Marxian approach was neglected in sociology for a long time, over the last thirty years it has become an essential part of sociology. Much of the writing of other sociologists can be viewed as an attempt to either refute Marx, complement Marx or update Marx. While Marxism may currently be considered in disfavour by many, the Marxian approach to the study of society provides essential insights which are not present in other approaches. In particular, the importance of the material world and ec onomic factors, in affecting the structure of society is often considered to be the most important aspect of Marx's thought.

3. Max Weber

Following Marx, we will skip to Chapter 4 of Hadden, to discuss the approach of the German sociologist, Max Weber. Weber can be viewed in many different ways, as attempting to counter Marx or Marxism, or as complementing and completing the Marxian approach. Weber examined many different aspects of human social action and interaction. While Weber recognized the importance of the material basis for social organization, he considered factors such as religion and ideas as additional features of society that had their own independent influence on human action and historical development. According to Weber, these were aspects of society that were generally overlooked or minimized in importance by Marx and his followers.

With respect to social stratification, Weber felt that in addition to social class, social status and party were also important considerations. Weber's view of power was also more general than that of Marx, with social power emerging from several diffe rent possible sources, not all of which could be reduced to economic features. For Weber, changes in capitalism also had a different dynamic than that claimed by Marx, with rationality and rationalism, rather than class struggle, dominating human developm ent.

While Marx and Weber differed considerably in the way they approached the study of society, the topics that Weber examined are similar to those examined by Marx. Both were concerned with society as a whole, how it changes, and how this affects individu als and groups.

4. Emile Durkheim

After discussing Weber, we will return to Chapter 3 of Hadden, to examine the ideas of the French sociologist, Emile Durkheim. Durkheim has often been regarded as more of a sociologist than Marx or Weber, since the latter social theorists had many inte rests other than sociology. Durkheim helped to define and establish sociology as an academic discipline by noting that there was a realm of the social, different from economics, psychology, or politics. In terms of his specific interests, Durkheim examine d social structures in society as a whole, and was particularly concerned with what holds society together, that is, how social order is created and maintained. Durkheim was not a radical but is generally considered to be a liberal in his political orient ation, hoping to promote social reforms while maintaining social order.

Much of Durkheim's writings concerned religion, because he saw this as part of the collective consciousness, a means of preserving social order, "a strong integrative force through its instillation of common values and identification." (Wallace and Wol f, p. 25). In modern society, Durkheim considered the educational system to be one possible source of integration, an "alternative to religion for the transmission of values" (Wallace and Wolf, p. 25).

Durkheim is also important in the study of sociology for outlining a particular methodological approach, the study of what he termed social facts. One of Durkheim's great methodological studies was his study of suicide, where he showed the regul arities and predictability of suicide rates. According to Durkheim, this demonstrated the scientific nature of sociology as a discipline. While not all sociologists agree with his methodological claims, they constitute one important influence in sociologi cal methodology.

When discussing each of Marx, Weber and Durkheim, feminist alternatives and criticisms and issues related to sex and gender will also be discussed in the class.

5. Twentieth Century Sociological Approaches

After dealing with the three major streams of sociology, the last half of the course deals with more recent developments ways in which the approaches of the three major classical writers have been modified and expanded. The book by Wallace and Wo lf will be used for the last half of the course. We will not be able to discuss all of this book, but will try to cover the major contemporary approaches. Wallace and Wolf introduce each of the contemporary approaches with a quick review of the classical writers. Wallace and Wolf consder the classical writers to have laid the basis for the more contemporary approaches, and they show how the classical tradition has been maintained, but at the same time updated and changed as contemporary writers address ne w concerns or introduce new approaches.

The writings of both Marx and Durkheim and some of Weber's writings are concerned with society as a whole. These are approaches that can be considered structural, in that human behaviour and human interaction is guided or directed by large scale social structures norms, class structure, etc. While Marx looked on these structures as associated with conflict, for Durkheim, the large societal level structures tend to hold together and promote social order, with change occurring gradually. In this approa ch, religion, morality, the collective conscience, and the division of labour all promote social order. This consensus approach to society was adopted by some sociologists in the United States and became known as the structural functionalist approach. Som e of the sociologists who developed this approach were Parsons, Merton, Davis and Moore, and Alexander. These writers are usually termed functionalist or structural functionalist, and some of their views will be examined in the section of the course on fu nctionalism.

A quite different approach to the study of society is contained in the micro approaches section of the class. These are sometimes referred to as social interaction theories and the main theoretical approaches are symbolic interactionism, ethnomethodolo gy, and phenomenology. These deal with individual and small group social action and interaction, as opposed to the macro or societal level of the structural approaches. These approaches may find their roots in Weber's notion of verstehen or underst anding, or perhaps in Simmel's views concerning individual consciousness and social interaction or association. Weber examined some of the macro structural aspects of society, but also noted that it is important to understand "the relationship between mea ning and action." (Cuff, p. 142). Since sociology attempts to explain human action, it is necessary to understand individuals, how they interpret situations, and what motivates them to take the action they do. Georg Simmel, a less well known German sociol ogist who was a contemporary of Weber and Durkheim, discussed with how individuals interact and form groups.

These approaches to the study of individuals and small groups have been taken up by the symbolic interaction school who attempt to

identify 'social meanings' that some group of actors share and to explain these meanings in terms of the relation the actors have with one another and with other groups. Thus the interactionist is concerned with actors, their beliefs, actions an d relationships. (Cuff, pp., 191-2). 

The ethnomethodologist is "concerned with activities rather than actors. Ethnomethodological studies inquire not so much into meanings, as into the work which makes meanings possible." (Cuff, p. 192).

 These latter approaches take the individual, the small group, daily activities, and interaction among people as their focus. They examine ordinary situations such as conversation, work activities, interactions between individuals, and how we pres ent ourselves. They are not so concerned with the large structural issues such as social class, ethnic conflict or group norms. The social interaction approach is to study meaning and action, and for these writers, the continued actions of individuals est ablish and maintain what we call social behaviour, social institutions and social structures.

While feminist approaches are not considered in a separate section, examples of how issues of sex and gender can be examined using the micro approaches will be provided. Some of the feminist approaches point the way toward a resolution of the split bet ween the structural (macro) approaches and the meaning and action (micro) perspectives. Several feminist writers tie these together in a manner that may be fruitful for sociological theory in general.

Following an examination of the micro approaches, the Marxian and other approaches that focus on conflict will be examined. For Marx and Marxists, class conflict is the driving force of history. More recently, the Marxian approach has been supplemented with elements of Weberian and other sociological analysis to examine conflict in society, but with more than strictly economic forces at work. Wallace and Wolf provide several examples of conflict theory, from both the Marxian and Weberian tradition. In Chapter four they show how these conflict approaches have been used to examine change in society, in particular looking at social evolution and modernity, the social system that has developed in Western Europe and North America over the last two hundred y ears.

The postmodern approach represents a new departure in sociological theory. Ritzer portrays it partly as an "assault on structure" (p. 506) and structural approaches. Some postmodernists reject theory or "metanarratives" entirely. Rather than searching for a theoretical approach that explains all aspects of society, postmodernism is more concerned with examining the variety of experiences of individuals and groups. In the view of many postmodernists, the modern world is "fragmented, disrupted, disordere d, interrupted" and unstable and may not be understandable or a large scale. (Rosenau, p. 170). A large part of this approach is to critique the grand theoretical approaches and "deconstruct" texts. (Ritzer, pp. 632-636). This requires the reader to int erpret texts, but not impose their interpretation on others. (Rosenau, p. 170). The postmodern approach originally came from the humanities where "subjectivity and speculation" (Rosenau, p. 168) are interesting and insightful. While Wallace and Wolf do no t spend much time discussing postmodern approaches, we will spend one or two classes examining the ideas of a few postmodern writers.

The final section of the course will be a short section on Canadian perspectives in social theory. These may not be unique in that they primarily represent an adaptation of sociological approaches developed in other countries to the Canadian context an d experience. In doing this though, some of these theoretical approaches have been more widely used in Canada than have others. I will outline which approaches have been widely used and seem fruitful in understanding Canadian society. One or two approache s that may be uniquely Canadian (Innis and staple model) will also be introduced.


Cuff, E. C., W. W. Sharrock and D. W. Francis, Perspectives in Sociology, thrid edition, London, Routledge, 1992. HM.6 P37 1984.

Hadden, R. W., Sociological Theory: An Introduction to the Classical Tradition, Peterborough, Broadview Press, 1997.

Ritzer, G., Sociological, Theory, third edition, New York, McGraw-Hill, 1992. HM24 R4938

Rosenau, P. M., Post-modernism and the Social Sciences: Insights, Inroads, and Intrusions, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1992.

Wallace, R. A. and A. Wolf, Contemporary Sociological Theory: Expanding the Classical Tradition, fifth edition, Upper Saddle River, N. J., Prentice-Hall, 1999.


Last edited on September 9, 1999.

Return to Sociology 250.