(University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)
December 28, 2021
Even then, this limited canon was considered anomalous. The syllabus I was handed as a teaching assistant included social interactionism, post-structuralism, and feminism. The first undergraduate theory course I taught on my own added ethnomethodology, postmodernism, and the study of racialized inequality, working mainly from the anthology assembled by Charles Lemert, who aimed to place “multicultural” theories on par with the “white, male advocates of European culture who wrote the first, best-known social theories.” (The fifth edition of Lemert’s anthology, published in 2013, expanded its title to include “global” theories as well.)
A majority of these syllabi (36 of 52) assigned textbooks, the most popular of which was by Michele Dillon (11 of 36). Even in sociology departments with graduate programs, most undergraduate syllabi used textbooks (15 of 22). Twenty-one syllabi assigned anthologies, 13 of them in conjunction with textbooks. Only nine of the 52 syllabi went entirely with their own reading selections.
Marx, Weber, and Durkheim were covered in all of the syllabi. Two thirds of the syllabi (34 of 52) also included W.E.B. Du Bois, and more than half (32 of 52) included other theorists of racialized inequality. Three quarters of the syllabi (41 of 52) included at least one of these theorists.
Almost all of the syllabi (47 of 52) included feminist theories – the most widely assigned authors were Patricia Hill Collins (16 of 46), Charlotte Perkins Gilman (13 of 46), and Dorothy Smith (10 of 46).
The next most widely assigned author from the classical period was Georg Simmel (24 of 52). From the following generations, the most widely assigned authors were George Herbert Mead (29 of 52), Talcott Parsons (21 of 52), Erving Goffman (28 of 52), Michel Foucault (25 of 52), and Pierre Bourdieu (20 of 52).
No other theorist was mentioned more than a dozen times, and most theorists on these syllabi were mentioned in a half-dozen or fewer courses. Beyond a handful of “classics,” there seems to be a great deal of disagreement about what constitutes the canon of sociological theory.
Lemert’s image of the canon as limited to “white, male advocates of European culture” seems to be outdated. Although nine of the top 10 most widely cited authors were white males (all but Du Bois), only a handful of syllabi (5 of 52) assigned white male theorists exclusively, and some of this handful seem not to have been updated in decades; two of them referred to Parsons, who died more than 40 years ago, as a “contemporary” sociological theorist.
That said, sociological theory as taught to undergraduates in the United States still features much of the same cast of characters as a generation ago. Almost all of the syllabi made room for race and gender, but the bulk of the theories are the same ones I encountered in the 1980s. Mid-20th century approaches to sociological theory such as structural functionalism, symbolic interactionism, exchange theory, ethnomethodology, and “conflict theory” seem to be far more present in these recent syllabi than they are in contemporary sociological theory, or in sociological practice more generally. (To those who continue to work in these traditions, I apologize for putting this bluntly.)
One way to visualize this is to group the authors covered in these courses by year of birth. (For this part of the analysis, I inferred the identity of unnamed authors, where possible, from descriptions in the syllabi, such as Parsons for “structural functionalism.” The authors of textbooks and editors of anthologies are not included in these counts.) Of the 868 references to theorists on these 52 syllabi, 306 referred to authors born before 1870 (including Marx, Weber, Durkheim, and Du Bois). An additional 164 references were to authors born before 1920; 168 were to authors born in the 1920s; 64 were to authors born in the 1930s, 96 were to authors born in the 1940s, and 70 were to authors born in the 1950s or later.
The individual syllabi varied widely on how they doled out readings – in the following chart, each syllabus is represented by a horizontal line, color-coded for the cohort of the authors covered in the syllabus. (The chart counts each author on the syllabus once, and does not take account of the length of readings or the number of days of instruction devoted to each author.) The syllabi are arranged from top to bottom by the year in which the instructor received their doctorate. (Two syllabi were received without instructors’ names, so the year of doctorate is listed as unknown.) Some syllabi devoted more than half of their references to the classical period; others devoted one quarter or less. Some syllabi included no authors born since 1930; in others, these comprised half of the authors on the syllabus.
Among the new developments that have not gotten much traction yet in these syllabi are calls to “decolonize” sociological theory, such as R.W. Connell’s Southern Theory (2007) and Syed Farid Alatas and Vineeta Sinha’s Sociological Theory Beyond the Canon (2017). The canon of North American and European theorists has expanded to encompass women and people and color, but relatively few syllabi (16 of 52) included an author from the Global South, and most of those authors work in the United States. Sociological theory, as it appears in these syllabi, is almost entirely a product of Europe and North America.
For years, I have wrestled with the conundrum of how much to update my own theory syllabus. I have shrunk my coverage of the “classical” era and dropped almost all of the mid-20th century material in order to add more recent and more global theorists. With each change, I feel a tension between the goal of introducing students to interesting contemporary theorists they may never encounter in another sociology class, and the goal of inducting students into the general theoretical knowledge of sociologists in the United States, many of whom were trained, as I was, with a more limited canon.
Reviewing this sample of syllabi from around the United States, I see that I am not alone with this dilemma.