As I suspect is the case for many members of the Section, my identity as a social theorist is inseparably tied to my identity as a teacher of undergraduate and especially graduate courses on sociological theory. Certainly, my engagement with and commitment to especially classical sociological theory has been deepened by my experience teaching the first-semester theory course to incoming graduate students at the University of Michigan almost continuously now for well over a decade. The task of brushing the dust off of canonical texts and making them sparkle anew for fresh recruits to Sociology – whether or not they see themselves as inclined toward theory – is an exhilarating challenge that defines the fall for me as much as shortened days and turning leaves.
Lately, this challenge has become a more daunting one. The canon is now under assault in a way that requires those of us who have oriented our teaching careers to transmitting these works to new generations of students to pause and take a step back. Graduate students have become increasingly skeptical – and in some cases, totally dismissive – that works written by “dead white men” (namely, Marx, Weber, and Durkheim) could have produced insights that are in any way relevant to the contemporary practice of sociology. My own syllabus is particularly vulnerable to these critiques since it begins not with classical sociological theory per se, but with the utilitarian/liberal tradition in political thought against which Marx and Durkheim in particular reacted in constituting a nascent sociological approach. (If you think that it is difficult to convince skeptical graduate students that there is any utility in reading Marx, try convincing them to read Locke!)
In their article “Meaning and Modularity: The Multivalence of ‘Mechanism’ in Sociological Explanation” (2019, Sociological Theory), Knight and Reed disentangle and explore contradictions between “modular” and “meaningful” mechanistic models. The disjuncture, they argue, is grounded in “incompatible causal foundations and entails mechanistic models with distinct and conflicting evidentiary standards.” Below is a conversation with the authors on their provocative article.
We asked members to share their favorite works of fiction that illustrate sociological theory in particularly evocative ways. Below are the submissions of Soc-Fi we received.
A group of scholars gathered at the Social Science History Association meetings in Chicago to discuss Professor Gil Eyal’s most recent book. That discussion and Prof. Eyal’s response are published below.
Fall/ Winter 2019