SOCY 710: Theoretical Foundations of Sociology

Professor Mathieu Deflem, Ph.D.
University of South Carolina
Department of Sociology
Office: Sloan 217

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This course is a graduate-level seminar that discusses selected developments in the foundations of sociological theory, especially the work of the so-called classics as well as selected modern scholars whose work have attained classic status. This course does not provide a broad survey that would offer a comprehensive overview of all or many theoretical contributions in the classical era of sociology, roughly defined as the period that coincided with the institutionalization of sociology as a social science. Yet, it will attempt to discuss more than the usual overview of the works of the so-called sociological ‘trinity’ and also include some relatively neglected classics. The introduced variety should also enable students to explore additional classical developments independently.

The class discussions are not only geared towards an adequate understanding of theory and a clarification of its role for sociological analyses of various social phenomena (the systematics of theory), they will also be sociological in explaining the social context of the theoretical foundations of sociology and its various strands and representatives (the history of theory).

Two objectives are central to this course. First, emphasis in the course is placed on an adequate understanding of the conceptual tools and propositions that are advanced in the discussed perspectives. Second, because this is a sociological theory course for sociologists, not (only) for theorists, we will also examine the fruitfulness of the introduced theoretical ideas for the empirical analysis of substantive matters of society.

For the purposes of this course, at least three issues are indispensable for a useful understanding of sociological theory: 1) an accurate comprehension of a given theory within the terms of the theory itself as well as its socio-historical setting; 2) an ability to compare different theories with one another; and 3) a serious attempt to apply and/or test theoretical insights to empirical issues of society. Therefore, the readings in the course always include a selection of central primary writings.

Upon successful completion of this course, students should be able to acknowledge and practice the variable relevance of classical thought in their respective areas of interest and, moreover, advance their theoretical interests into the modern and contemporary era.

The complete course syllabus will be made available to registered students.


Introduction: The Centrality of the Classics

Part 1. The Rise of the Social Sciences
     a) Social Philosophy Since the Enlightenment
     b) Historical Materialism: Karl Marx

Part 2. The French Tradition
     a) Sociology in France Since Auguste Comte
     b) Emile Durkheim

Part 3. The German Tradition
     a) Sociology in Germany Since Ferdinand Tönnies
     b) Max Weber

Part 4. The American Tradition: The Modern Era
      a) Talcott Parsons: The Modernization of the Classics
      b) C. Wright Mills: Radical Sociology
      c) Erving Goffman: The Interaction Order 


The readings for this course consist of several books and articles, most all of which are primary sources. A few overview books are recommended as well. Most all required readings are available online.

General Sources

Deflem, Mathieu. 1999. Classical Sociological Theory: A Summary. Unpublished notes, available online.

Coser, Lewis A. 1971. Masters of Sociological Thought: Ideas in Historical and Social Context. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. [online summaries]

Pampel, Fred C. 2007. Sociological Lives and Ideas. Second Edition. New York: Macmillan.

Collins, Randall. 1994. Four Sociological Traditions. New York: Oxford University Press.

Ritzer, George. 2008. Sociological Theory. Eight edition. New York: McGraw Hill. [online] [pdf]

Szelenyi, Ivan. 2009. SOCY151: Foundations of Modern Social Theory. Yale Open Course.

Introduction: On the Value of the Classics

Merton, Robert K. 1967. “The Uses and Abuses of Classical Theory.” Pp. 23-33 in his On Social Structure and Science, edited by P. Sztompka. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. [Google Books]

Alexander, Jeffrey C. 1987. “The Centrality of the Classics.” Pp. 11-57 in Sociological Theory Today, edited by A. Giddens and J. Turner. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. [Google Books]

Part 1. The Rise of the Social Sciences 

Kant, Immanuel. 1784. English translation of “Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung? (Answer to the Question: What Is Enlightenment?)” Berlinische Monatsschrift 4: 481-494.

Turner, Jonathan, Beeghley, Leonard, and Charles H. Powers. 2012. “The Rise of Theoretical Sociology.” In The Emergence of Sociological Theory. Seventh Edition. Sage Publications. 

Marx, Karl. 1846. The German Ideology. [online]

Marx, Karl. 1844. Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. [online]

Marx, Karl. 1848. Manifesto of the Communist Party. [online]

Marx, Karl. 1867. Capital, Volume One. [online]

Part 2. The French Tradition

Turner, Jonathan, Beeghley, Leonard, and Charles H. Powers. 2012. “The Sociology of Auguste Comte.” In The Emergence of Sociological Theory. Seventh Edition. Sage Publications.

Comte, Auguste. 1988. Introduction to Positive Philosophy. Indianapolis: Hackett. The 1896 condensed version by Harriet Martineau is online.

Durkheim, Emile. (1893) 1984. The Division of Labor in Society. New York: The Free Press. [selections online] [See also Durkheim's works online (in French) and the Durkheim Pages for critical summaries (in English).]

Durkheim, Emile. (1895) 1982. The Rules of Sociological Method. New York: The Free Press. [online]

Durkheim, Emile. (1897) 1951. Suicide: A Study in Sociology. New York: The Free Press. [online]

Durkheim, Emile. (1900) 1992. Professional Ethics and Civic Morals. London: Routledge. [online]

Durkheim, Emile. (1912) 1965. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. New York: The Free Press. [online]

Part 3. The German Tradition

Deflem, Mathieu. 1999. “Ferdinand Tönnies on Crime and Society: An Unexplored Contribution to Criminological Sociology.” History of the Human Sciences 12(3): 87-116. [online]

Deflem, Mathieu. 2003. “The Sociology of the Sociology of Money: Simmel and the Contemporary Battle of the Classics.” Journal of Classical Sociology 3(1):67-96. [online]

Weber, Max. (1920) 1976. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. [online]

Weber, Max. 1946. From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, edited by H.H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills. New York: Oxford University Press. [online]

Weber, Max. (1922) 1978. Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, edited by G. Roth and C. Wittich. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Part 4. The American Tradition 

Parsons, Talcott. 1951. The Social System. London: Routledge (1991 edition). [online]

Mills, C. Wright. 1956. The Power Elite. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2000 edition). [online]

Goffman, Erving. 1956. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh. [online pdf] [1959 edition]

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