One of the pleasures of teaching sociological theory to undergraduates is witnessing the dialogue between what we teach and the “folk” theories of society that students bring with them to the classroom. For three semesters running, I have administered a brief survey on the first day of the sociological theory course at Bates College in order to introduce the course and probe my students’ theoretical predilections and antipathies. Each semester, the survey has revealed students’ preference for microinteractionism, the sociological tradition that is most indigenous to the American cultural context. I find that understanding their own “folk” theoretical inclinations helps my students adopt a more reflexive and intellectually receptive approach to the different theories on offer within sociology. It also provides an opportunity to reflect on the normative implications embedded in all social theories, helping to head off moral resistance that can cloud comprehension.
Theoretical Foundations of Sociology is a requirement for sociology majors at Bates College, and for many students it will be their only concentrated encounter with sociological theory. To help structure the conceptual terrain, I rely on Randall Collins’s theoretical taxonomy in Four Sociological Traditions, which distinguishes conflict, rational/utilitarian, Durkheimian, and microinteractionist traditions .
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The questionnaire I distribute on the first day of class provides thumbnail sketches (without names) of each of Collins’s four traditions. I ask students to evaluate how believable they are as a description of the social world, ranking them from most (1) to least (4) plausible. These thumbnail descriptions of the four sociological traditions are faithful to Collins’s taxonomy, although I conclude each with a sentence expressing my own sense of what each tradition implies for sociology’s normative mission:
History is best characterized as the struggle between various groups. Society is an ongoing contest between the dominant and the dominated in which everyone vies for their own interests. There is seldom enough to go around for everyone, and some things, like power or public acclaim, inherently favor some people at the expense of others. Hence, it’s not surprising that even when people claim to be concerned about universal interests, they are usually advocating for their own agenda. Sociologists can improve society only by helping subordinate groups perceive and resist their domination.
“Society” is actually a collection of individuals, each of whom is pursuing basic, egotistical ends. People know best what they want, and most social activity can be boiled down to individuals trying to get what they want. Even though—or, more accurately, because—people are basically self-interested, they can get along pretty well as long as their incentives are properly aligned. Social scientific expertise is useful in designing optimal incentives.
Human beings are social animals through and through. Try as we might to pretend that we’re all rational individuals, our most fervent aims and ideals and our most basic emotional needs ultimately trace back to other people. This makes us inescapably normative, moralizing, creatures. Sociologists’ role is to remind us of our dependency on one another while making our shared ideals fit social reality as closely as possible.
The entire social world arises out of meaningful social interactions between people. In fact, people come to understand themselves only by talking and cooperating with each other. Social institutions and roles are simply patterns of interaction that have gelled through familiarity and habit. Society is thus continually being made and re-made through the interaction of individuals. Sociology allows people to see that they can shape, and potentially improve, society through cooperative action.
I collect students’ responses, but provide them with an extra copy of the thumbnail descriptions to use as a reference during discussion and throughout the semester.
For all three semesters that I have administered this mini-survey, students have ranked the four traditions with remarkable consistency (see Table 1). The microinteractionist tradition is the clear favorite. When I ask them to explain their preference in our subsequent discussion, many students remark that this perspective is attractive for its optimism about human nature and about the efficacy of cooperation amongst well-intentioned individuals as an antidote to society’s shortcomings. By contrast, they remark that the Durkheimian tradition slights individual agency and portrays human beings as “sheep-like.” In making the conflict tradition their second most popular choice, my sense is that the students are implicitly balancing cynical and optimistic visions of society; as sociology majors, moreover, many of them are concerned about the oppression of subordinate groups. Finally, rational-choice theory’s last-place ranking among my students may partly reflect their chosen major’s intellectual distance from the model of homo economicus which anchors economic theory.
Table 1. Results of Student Surveys
Table 2. Analytic Dimensions of the Four Sociological Traditions
At the end of Four Sociological Traditions, Collins argues that the imprint of national culture on the respective theoretical approaches has been progressively effaced by a blending of ideas in academia (Collins 1994a: 292 ff.). If this is true among professional sociologists, it seems not yet to have taken place in “folk” culture. The very predictability of student responses and their alignment with American cultural assumptions helps students realize that they are not embarking on an exploration of theory with a blank slate, but instead carry with them an implicit sociological vision that reflects the society they inhabit. The point here, however, is not that students are naïve “cultural dupes.” In many ways, their theoretical preconceptions prepare them very well for life in America. They reflect widely shared norms and realistic default expectations of quotidian social behavior. Rather than being wrong, these theoretical intuitions are a point of departure to be made explicit and elaborated upon, and to be tested and contrasted with alternatives.
One helpful pedagogical consequence of this approach is that it brings to the surface the normative and aspirational dimensions of sociological theorizing. I have found that, when it is left unstated, the psychic difficulty of separating what we wish were true about society from what actually is true can interfere with students’ ability to think clearly about social theory. In the classroom discussion that follows the “four traditions” ranking exercise, students often end up admitting that they chose the microinteractionist perspective not just because it seemed realistic, as I stipulate in the instructions, but because they hope that it is true. I emphasize to students that there is actually a good social reason for the difficulty we have separating “is” from “ought” when proposing visions of how society works: widely accepted visions of society tend to turn into (at least partially) self-fulfilling prophecies. In other words, while some defensiveness about how society works may reflect pure wishfulness, it also reflects the sound intuition that beliefs about the motivations of others exert a powerful normative influence on behavior.
One way of disarming—or, perhaps, correctly orienting—this moral defensiveness about social theory is to suggest that each theoretical perspective describes an alternate universe that is likely to have at least some points of overlap with our own complex social world. By understanding how each version of social reality works, we are better equipped to see its points of convergence and divergence with our own society. Where it is truer than we might like, we can understand its internal logic and strategize how to manage or counteract it. Where it is both unappealing and unrealistic, we can rid ourselves from needless and potentially destructive cynicism.
We should expect that the folk theories which resonate most with students will vary by country, region, social class, ethnicity, gender, and the like. But in all cases, students will bring some moral and empirical assumptions to their encounter with social theory. Bringing those into the open, and pointing out that all theorists—no matter how brilliant and revered they may be—have such assumptions and build upon them, can make sociological theory seem less esoteric. It can also help students set aside the moral defensiveness that can impede the process of learning to use and evaluate different social theories as if they were tools in a mental workshop. After a good stint of explanatory work, we can always return to the moral aspirations we hold dear and ask how they apply in light of our newfound understanding. Students can thus look to sociological theory to enhance both their empirical and ethical grasp on the world.
Berger, Peter L., and Thomas Luckmann. 1967. The social construction of reality: a treatise in the sociology of knowledge. New York: Anchor Books.
Collins, Randall. 1994a. Four sociological traditions. New York: Oxford University Press.
—. 1994b. Four sociological traditions : selected readings. New York: Oxford University Press.
Durkheim, Emile, and Mustafa Emirbayer. 2003. Emile Durkheim : sociologist of modernity. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub.
Fischer, Claude S. 2008. "Paradoxes of American Individualism." Sociological Forum 23(2):363-72.
Henrich, Joseph, Steven J. Heine, and Ara Norenzayan. 2010. "The Weirdest People in the World?" Behavioral and Brain Sciences 33(2-3):61-83.
Homans, George. 1994 . "Social Exchange among Equals and Unequals." Pp. 135-44 in Four sociological traditions : selected readings, edited by Randall Collins. New York: Oxford University Press.
Olson, Mancur. 1965. The logic of collective action; public goods and the theory of groups. Cambridge, Mass.,: Harvard University Press.
Swidler, Ann. 1992. "Inequality and American culture: The persistence of voluntarism." Pp. 294-314 in Reexamining democracy : essays in honor of Seymour Martin Lipset, edited by Gary Marks and Larry Jay Diamond. Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage Publications.
Willer, Robb. 2009. "Groups Reward Individual Sacrifice: The Status Solution to the Collective Action Problem." American Sociological Review 74(1):23-43.
 Saez’s lecture is available online at https://ethicsinsociety.stanford.edu/events/lectures/ethics-of-wealth-series/emmanuel-saez-income-inequality-evidence-and-policy
 See Claude Fischer’s discussion of this phenomenon at http://www.bostonreview.net/blog/claude-fischer-do-ideas-matter