SOC 401  Homepage
Instructor Carl W. Roberts

Classes meet Wednesday and Friday 3:40-5:00 a.m.

   211 East Hall
This is an upper-level course on theoretical developments in sociology since the mid-19th century.  In this course students should develop skills in . . .
  • identifying theories' key concepts, assumptions, arguments, and implications.
  • reasoning according to a variety of theoretical perspectives.
  • locating components in distinct theories that account for why they yield inconsistent conclusions.
Starting with the semester's second week, the focus of each class will be a class presentation by a team of students on the theorist(s) assigned for that day.  This presentation will be organized around one or more graphics or tables that depict the theories being discussed.  The group of presenters will then entertain questions from the class and the instructor about the day's readings.  In all class discussions, the objective is to make explicit both the mechanism(s) that underlies each theory, and the ways that each theorist builds on (or can be distinguished from) the ideas of other theorists whom we may already have discussed.  As the semester proceeds, we shall spend increasing time contrasting the week's theorists with those discussed during previous weeks.

During the semester's third week, classes will begin with one-minute syntheses of theorists that have been discussed in previous classes.  These brief syntheses will be given by individual students, who were assigned to this task at the beginning of the previous class.  Please note that a one-minute synthesis is NOT a summary of what a theorist wrote.  It is a concise explanation of the theorist's understanding of how society works (i.e., of her theoretical mechanism[s]).  Your skill in making these syntheses is expected to improve during the semester.  Differently put, you are not expected to know how to synthesize theorists' ideas on Day 1.  This is why you are encouraged to seek help from your instructor as you strive to develop this skill.

Your instructor will also provide you with ongoing support in writing your term paper.  For example, no classes will be held on October 15th or November 19th.  Instead, during the week of October 18-22 we shall have individually scheduled student-instructor meetings, within which an outline (due on Friday, October 15th) will form the basis for jointly exploring the topic and analytic strategy that you foresee for your term paper.  On Friday, November 5th, a bibliography of at least 5 articles or book chapters (other than those listed on the Readingspage) is due, and the term paper is due on Friday of dead week.  In preparation for writing the term paper, a smaller position paper will be due on Friday, October 1st.  The assignment due for each of these 4 Friday deadlines is a Word document e-mailed to before midnight on the due date.

Most readings for the course (approximately 25 pages per class period) are from one of the the following texts:
Kivisto, Peter.  2008.  Social Theory: Roots and Branches, 3rd Edition.  New York, NY: Oxford U. Press.


Kivisto, Peter.  2003.  Social Theory: Roots and Branches, 2nd Edition.  Los Angeles, CA: Roxbury.
The following readings have been placed on e-reserve at Parks Library:
Merton, Robert K.  1938.  "Social Structure and Anomie."  American Sociological Review 3:672-682.

Blumer, Herbert.  1947.  “Sociological Theory in Industrial Relations.” American Sociological Review 12:271-278.

All other readings are available in a packet of photocopies from Copyworks (105 Welch Avenue).  A listing of each class's readings is accessible via the above “Readingspage” link.

This course involves students in “cooperative learning” for most assignments.  During the first week of classes, teams of about 3 students each will be assigned.  These students will be responsible for making three class presentations during the semester, and they will usually meet twice each week to prepare class notes.  Responsible teams will be listed in red on the Readingspage.  (For example, your instructor's name, Carl, is listed as the “team” responsible for presentations during the first two and the last classes.)  You should keep checking the Readingspage to make sure your team does not miss its assignment to give a presentation.  Moreover, teams can choose their presentation assignments if they make their preferences known to the instructor before a different team has indicated its desire to present a particular theorist(s).

Class presentations:  At the beginning of each class, the team responsible for giving that day's presentation will distribute a handout to all members of the class.  This handout should be comprised of sketches (graphics?) or tables in which the key ideas in each reading are organized in a concise way.  Presentations should not summarize readings linearly (i.e., in the sequence provided by the author).  Since everyone has read (linearly) the author's words, such summaries would be repetitive and would waste precious time in class.  Instead, presentations should explain how the various parts of the theorists' ideas fit into a single perspective.  Moreover, please note that EVERYONE should have studied the assigned readings prior to their discussion.  Only if everyone comes to class prepared, shall we all enjoy (and learn from) an informed discussion, right?

Note that your team's presentations should improve as the semester proceeds.  Thus the same presentation will get a higher grade as a first presentation than as a second one.  For example, summarizing (rather than synthesizing) an article will earn a grade of A-minus on a first presentation, but a B-minus on a second.

Notes:  No later than 5:00 p.m. on the evening prior to each class, every team (i.e., NOT every individual student) should submit 1-2 pages of critical notes on the theorists to be discussed in the next day's class.  Notes should be sent by e-mail to as a Microsoft Word document, and must consist of your team's work on the following five components:

  • A statement of the theorist's "why question."  Every sociological theory provides an answer to a question about why behaviors are patterned in some ways but not others.  For example, Nancy White's "why question" might be phrased as, "Why do some people remain lazy, deceitful children, whereas others become considerate adults?"
  • A synthesis of the theorist's answer to this question, in which the following are addressed:
    • What are the theorist's key concepts?
    • How are these concepts defined?
    • How are these concepts used to answer the theorist's why question?
  • An explanation of what, according to the theorist, motivates human behavior.  The mechanism driving every social theory is grounded in the theorist's conception of what motivates people to act as they do.  For example, Nancy White depicts people as having either selfish or altruistic motives, and her theory is about why peoples' motives are sometimes of one kind and sometimes of the other kind.
  • Observations on how the theorist's argument parallels or contrasts with the arguments of other theorists previously discussed in class.
  • A table or graphic depiction of the theorist's argument (possibly on a third page).  Please do not use "clip-art" in your graphics.
These notes will help me ensure that any misunderstandings of the theorists can be corrected in class.  Note that team members will only receive full credit for their notes if they include all five of these components.  Also, make sure that you have a copy of your team's notes with you during the class when they are discussed.  If possible, notes from the team responsible for the class presentation should include a copy of the team's handout within its Word file.

When the material presented in this course does not "fit" with your ideas, you may experience feelings of annoyance, irritation, or outrage (but also, hopefully, ones of challenge).  Learning to experience the world through others' eyes usually has this effect.  However, the learning afforded by such experiences can only happen if you are at least temporarily willing to let go (or to suspend) your own mode of experience, and to adopt that of another.  In fact, if you are always comfortable with the course's material, this is very likely a sign that you are not learning much at all.

This course is an opportunity to let “what you know is true” be challenged, contested, and even shattered then reassembled at times.  So, please be open to the different perspectives, theories, arguments, and life experiences brought to class discussions by your classmates.  And, please be considerate, respectful, and empathetic (or at least tolerant) of differences.  No one should claim ultimate knowledge of what is real or true.  This course offers you a space for open discourse--for a dialogue to which everyone may contribute.

One should expect to neither discover nor reaffirm “the Truth” in this class.  Instead, the course's primary focus is on your developing the skill of revealing (or deconstructing) the theories behind others' words.  Although nonsociological texts could have been used, this skill is developed during the semester based on the words of contemporary sociological theorists.  Thus a second objective is that you leave this course with a big picture of the multifaceted ideas that comprise contemporary sociological theory.
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