Sociology 250

Introduction to Social Theory

September 9, 2002

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 (leave voice mail message), send an email, or contact me after class. I’ll try to respond relatively quickly to emails – within a day. My other class is at 11:30.

Textbooks and references You are expected to read the assigned readings in Adams and Sydie. The text surveys a great variety of contemporary sociological theories and it will not be possible to discuss all of these theories in one semester. I have provided a rough outline of the sections we will cover, but these may be changed as we proceed. This is the first time I have used this book and I am not sure exactly how many sections of the text we will be able to cover. Two copies are on reserve in the University Library.

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

I have also placed two 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 and a copy of this is on reserve. If you wish to have a different perspective on theory from the two textbooks, this provides 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 a good place to start. I would have assigned this book if the cost of the other texts had not been so great. I have also placed 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 thirty years ago, it provides a good summary of each of the three main sociological currents. This book shows how social theories emerged from and are connected with the develop of industrialization and capitalism in Europe and North America. Giddens may be a more difficult book to read but sociology majors should be familiar with the issues examined in this book by the time they graduate.

I have set up a web site for Sociology 250 for this semester. Once a week or so, I will try to 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. Posted on the web site are also the notes, exams, and assignments from previous semesters. These can be used as a guide, but this semester’s notes and assignments will differ somewhat from those of earlier semesters.

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, cite them as you would any reference from a book or article. Note 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. 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 timing of the assignments through the semester is such that there is usually something that you should be reading or working on.

The three short papers are to be no more than five pages. The first paper will be on some topic connected with the theories of Durkheim or Marx. I will try to have a list of topics ready by Friday and, if not, by next Monday. The second short paper will be on some aspect of the approach of Weber, Simmel, or one of the other authors discussed in the middle of the semester. The third paper will be on some more recent theoretical approach and is not due until the time of the final examination. Each paper is to be three to five 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 concise statements and arguments concerning the topic. Too often papers that are longer tend to ramble and attempt to cover too many aspects of a topic. I find that a short concise paper is more useful and provides most of the essential aspects of an argument. In writing such a paper, 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 midterm examination is on October 21. It will cover the approaches of Durkheim, Marx, Weber, and Simmel. The final examination is December 9 from 9 am to 12 noon. The final examination will cover material from the whole class, although the emphasis will be on the theoretical approaches discussed in the latter parts of the class. Many of these contemporary approaches incorporate or build on the ideas of Durkheim, Marx, Weber, and Simmel.


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 Wednesday, I will discuss the background to the major sociological approaches. We will spend a day on this and then get started on Durkheim’s approach to social theory. 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 three or four class periods on each of these. Following this we examine several late nineteenth or early twentieth century approaches – Simmel, Mead, Gilman, and DuBois. Functionalism and conflict theory grew 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 one semester, especially not all of the contemporary approaches. A short discussion of Canadian approaches to sociology will conclude the class.

One set of issues that have become essential to sociological theory in recent years is the discussion of issues related to sex and gender, race and ethnicity, and culture. These are feminist, post-colonial, racialized, and cultural theories, although by the end of the century there are now so many different such approaches that there is not just one theory of each. While there will occasionally be discussions of these approaches, the approaches of each writer to these issues will be discussed as part of that theoretical approach. Where the text does not examine this issue, I will supplement it with lecture material.

The classical approaches and some of the contemporary approaches to sociology ignored women and non-Europeans or made questionable assumptions about them. Sociological theory has tended to be a theory based on Western European males – leaving out women and much of humanity 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 the subject of sociological study. Classical writers argued that society did not involve the private sphere of household and 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-twentieth century, some sociologists (such as Parsons) began to redefine the realm of the social, and in the last thirty years, feminists and other writers 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 approaches by itself is capable of dealing with all aspects of sociology. By examining some of the ideas of these latter writers, 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.

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Last edited September 15, 2002