Teaching Theory For Sociology Students: Junior Notes

Mathieu Deflem
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This is a copy of a paper in Perspectives, ASA Theory section newsletter, April 1999.
Also available as PDF file.

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 1999. “Teaching Theory For Sociology Students: Junior Notes.” Perspectives, ASA Theory Section Newsletter 21(2):7-8.

Recent issues of this newsletter have offered exciting exchanges on the role of theory in our discipline. However, some elements concerning theory, especially its teaching, were absent, in part because as expert scholars we sometimes forget our mission as instructors. These risks affect all subfields of sociology, but especially sociological theory, presumably because of its somewhat esoteric qualities. We therefore need to remind ourselves often that we teach theory to instruct students, not to amuse ourselves. More generally, my suggestions are rooted in ongoing debates regarding the functions of higher education and the increasingly challenged role of the teacher (see R.N. Bellah, "Freedom, Coercion, and Authority," Academe, January- February, 1999). I will offer two pieces of advice that have served me well in my own teaching. As the subtitle of this essay indicates, I also confess that I am less than three years out of graduate school, blessed with the good fortune of teaching a graduate course in (contemporary) sociological theory.

1) Teaching sociological theory should be aimed at presenting the broad diversity of theoretical perspectives in our discipline. The recent ‘top-ten’ lists in this newsletter sometimes seemed to reveal more about the particular stance of the author than about our collective mission as representatives of a theoretical tradition. Yet, in our teaching of theory, particularly, we should be inspired by a broad representational concept of theoretical work, much like the model Donald Levine suggested a few years ago (Perspectives, Summer, 1997). Particularly under present conditions of an ever-increasing theoretical pluralism, theory instructors need to be more responsible than ever in recognizing and presenting theoretical diversity. It cannot be legitimate, nor is it unavoidable, that general courses in sociological theory are conducted from the particularistic theoretical perspective the instructor favors and/or is more familiar with. A course that devotes four times more attention to Marx than to Durkheim because the teacher happens to be an adherent of Marxism cannot rightfully claim to offer instruction in classical sociological theory. The syllabus of such a class can be added to a teaching compendium on ‘Teaching Sociology from a Marxist Perspective’ but not on teaching theory for sociologists.

Instructing theory should be based on instructors’ skills and knowledge of the field, not their positioning in rival camps. In my own graduate course on contemporary sociological theory, I therefore define the subject matter broadly as theories that ‘follow and are somehow rooted in the classics.’ Also, the variety of theories reviewed is explicated as being necessarily selective but not arbitrary, surveying both the more traditional schools and some of the most recent developments.

2) In our teaching (as through our research) we should strive towards de-mystifying sociological theory. We often lament the ambivalent place of theory in the discipline. As practitioners of theory, we sometimes feel underappreciated despite the very best of our efforts. But the ghettoization of theory is as much a function of the way theorists present their work as of the manner in which they are perceived by others. Particularly troublesome is the fanciful manner in which theory is often portrayed as a complex muddle of big words that lack any clear referent. But stylish references to the obscure schemas of fashionable European theorists with poorly pronounced names do not contribute to the validity of theory, nor to its acceptance by our peers. Such an attitude can only alienate sociologists, theorists included.

One of the most beneficial ways to demystify theory is to relate our concerns to those of the various substantive sociological subfields (see J.S. Chafetz, "Communicating with Non-Theorists," Perspectives, October, 1998). Even Talcott Parsons realized that theory is "justified only by its usefulness in understanding the facts of empirical experience" (The Structure of Social Action, 1949 edition, p.69). Yet, we cannot conceive of outreach to the research community as a one-sided discussion in which the theory expert would have privileged status. We can only talk with somebody to whom we listen. Thus, we should ourselves --more than we do now-- actively engage in applying theory to the substantive issues that move societies.

I obviously agree with Andrew Abbott that theory is always about the book of social life (Perspectives, October, 1998, p.4). But I would add that theory is also about how to read and how to write. We should apply theory, but we should also study and instruct the techniques and tools of being theoretical and doing theory. In my own teaching, the course objectives are both to reach an accurate comprehension of a theory in its own terms and to apply and empirically examine theoretical ideas to substantive social issues. The required readings, therefore, include conceptual papers as well as applied works.

In relation to teaching, demystification also involves integration of theory in the sociology curriculum and departments. There should be a place for theory as an indispensable component of the instructional program in all departments, for we teach theory for all sociologists. This is not a call for a despecialization. Our discipline needs specialists in analyzing and developing theory, just as badly as it needs specialists in analyzing and developing new statistical procedures: some, but not a lot. But our discipline needs all scholars of social life to always also be specialists in using and applying theory. In our teaching, we should not aim to produce advanced students in sociological theory, but advanced scholars in sociology, some of whom are theorists. 

See related papers on sociological theory.