On Teaching Theory in a New Department
ADIA HARVEY WINGFIELD
We require one graduate theory course that covers both contemporary and classical theory. Undergraduate majors have the same requirement. These classes cover the well known classical theorists who are widely considered to comprise the sociological canon (e.g., Marx, Durkheim, and Weber) along with other scholars who are frequently overlooked but also articulated early sociological theories (DuBois, Martineau, Cooper, Wells-Barnett). Social theory courses also cover contemporary theories ranging from functionalism to intersectionality.
How has the intentional diversity of the Washington University Sociology department influenced the way that you teach social theory?
Like our departmental makeup, our theory courses also reflect the racial and gender diversity of our department and of the field of sociology at large. Students cover a wide variety of theoretical approaches and paradigms, and are encouraged to be reflexive and critical of how the sociological canon is formed in the first place, and what that can tell us about questions of power, dominance, and epistemology.
Who are three theorists that every grad student should be exposed to, that you feel are currently under-assigned?
DuBois would have been in this category ten years ago, but fortunately that is starting to change. I enjoy having students read Harriet Martineau and juxtaposing her work with other early theorists such as Weber and Durkheim, and am looking forward to having my graduate students read Anna Julia Cooper and Ida B. Wells-Barnett to see how their work is in dialogue with DuBois, but is also an early frontrunner to intersectional theory.
And finally, what is the role of social theory in times of political unrest?
Social theory can help us understand how and why we see political unrest happening. But it can also help to explain myriad other social phenomena, ranging from economic inequality to climate change. In my view, it has nearly unlimited explanatory potential—it is just a matter of considering which theoretical approach best fits the situation at hand.