Initial Results: Teaching Grad Theory

Well, the term is over. Not simply because of Covid, but because UBC is on a 13-week semester and class ended last week. I am reporting, unscientifically, initial evidence from my experiment. First, a note on how the class ended up being organized.

  1. The first week was devoted to “what is theory,” with several papers like Abend’s now-classic and Jon Turner’s defense of positivism. At the same time Paul Reynold’s primer on theory construction was read to provide a sense of what formal scientific theory does and looks like. The second half of the class was devoted to actually deconstructing a theory-driven article (in this case, it was Ridgeway/Berger’s 1986 ASR). The point was to find a clear “formulaic” article that allows us to discuss both the practical side of writing/publishing theory-heavy or theory-driven papers and the exercise of deriving propositional statements from less-than formalized work. Any article would suffice here.
  2. Weeks 2-6 were devoted to broad strategies of writing, presenting, publishing, and conceptualizing theory. Formal theory was first; followed by a week on how some theorists/subfields/strands of scholarship develop and engage with a classical theorist or a specific work (in this case, Suicide, but anything will do fine here; next we read an assortment of theoretical pieces that employed different strategies synthesizing theory – this meant, synthesizing subfields, concepts, and so forth; we then shifted gears to how a theoretical idea, like schema, evolves within a given subfield; and then looked at a range of works that are interpretivist/hermeneutical. The one received best was the integrative week, perhaps because it was the most creative, but there was a lot of love for the first and second weeks too. The former was enjoyed because it helped them see how propositions come in different presentational forms and also how helpful they are in outlining an article and using it for comps, dissertation ideas, and actual empirical work. The latter was enjoyed because we looked at both theory and empirical work that sought to deal with serious theoretical dilemmas in Durkheim’s work. While the students liked the less-positivist nature of interpretivism, the criticism was the articles were overly detailed in their historical/archival data and one could get lost too easily in the weeds.
  3. The remaining weeks were devoted to large thematic areas: the self; emotions; commitment; power; social capital; and meso-micro linkages (e.g., networks; Fine’s idiocultures; Glaser/Strauss’ awareness contexts; community; strategic action fields). These weeks were devoted to seeing each of these conceptual themes from different angles while also noting the overlapping, commensurate aspects. If I were to change anything here, it would have been a couple of the readings and some of the themes. Mostly, these are placeholders for me to change year-by-year for the sake of freshness.

Now, the pros and cons.

  1. Pro #1: A nice balance between pragmatic concerns (writing publishable theory) and substantive concerns (a theory class is supposed to give students breadth of some sort). A lot of class – before Covid destroyed in-person meetings – was devoted to how to read theory, which was good. It also exposed students to a wide ranging body of theory that I think they would miss. By not focusing on areas or theorists allowed me to assign diverse readings each week tied together by writing or theorizing strategies (integrative theory, for instance). This mean both a practical side (what do people try to integrate and how many different ways do they try to accomplish it), and a substantive side (what is the actual theory?). We ended up covering a lot. I snuck evolution in, for instance, through the aforementioned gender strat paper and in Turner’s 2007 book on the evolution of emotions and social relationships. I was able to jump back and forth between social psych and organizational sociology. And, ultimately, I gave a decent survey of the discipline. Also, by including exercises devoted to thinking about how theory is used in more empirically-driven articles, we could spend time thinking about the role theory plays in research and not just in navel-gazing or canon-worshipping.
  2. Con #1: In the background, a serious problem kept bubbling up: the macro-micro dilemma. Some sociologists can and do think macro, historical, and in patterns; the vast majority do not. Many are, rightfully so, devoted to contemporary issues whether they are race or sexuality because they matter to them. The time and energy and resources needed to learn history to the level that one is comfortable even engaging big historical theories is also a major cost and, as Marx would have found out had he really tried to raise the proletariat’s historical consciousness, too often met with resistance, frustration, and questions of relevance. For instance, we read a great article by five authors positing a general theory of gender stratification. Now, admittedly, the article was on gender, which meant some students were simply going to critique it on critical grounds. But, the point of the article was to take four major areas that gender scholars focus on in explaining stratification, examine the historical and ethnographic record, and posit a theory that explains variations across time and space in how inequitable gender relations are. Its big and necessarily complex in its parts, but the article does a valiant job condensing a lot of ideas into a small space, drawing links between different research areas, and demonstrating how and why gender stratification varies. In any case, it is a great example of integrative macro-theory, induced by extant empirical evidence in order to produce deductive testing. The criticisms were typical: it is too simple (four big areas with two or three dozen concepts that could be operationalized in five or six dozen ways!!?!); it ignores the experiences of women (that’s the point, experiences are for a different type of sociology, but that doesn’t make this any less valid or worth reading). The lack of engagement with theorythe theory was astounding across the board. I shouldn’t be surprised as that tends to be the case year after year, no matter how or what I taught. If you asked me, it is really the disconnect between theory as philosophy, theory as critique of everything one hates or sees as the enemy of their group’s mobility, and theory as social science. Students aren’t sure what they are supposed to be getting out of it, and the theorists they often gravitate to are like Rorschach tests: garbled, obscurantist, and thus easy to impose whatever one wants to see.
  3. Pro #2: You know what did work out? My students increasingly became aware of the fact that there are 20-24 basic dimensions of social life (on continua like formal-informal, intimate-impersonal, etc) and that there are a delimited number of conceptual issues, themes, and so on. They came to this realization early, so I like to think the readings and the format of the front end of the class was the cause of these realizations (but, I have no data nor did I even deign to try collecting such data). To be sure, a couple of students I think came in believing sociology wasn’t a science and science is a white male oppressive, hegemonic ideology, so they would never be persuaded, though I think one became more critical of that knee-jerk perspective. Ultimately, I think it worked. It also worked that students became proficient at drawing propositions out of various types of work, both journal articles and monographs like Kai Erikson’s Everything in its Path.
  4. Con #2: Even with two more weeks as is common in the US, there are areas I would have missed because of the time constraints. For instance, I love evolutionary sociology, but it seemed not to fit and would have required a lot of time talking about evolution itself. Likewise, I study institutions and it would have been nice. In the past, and to some extent now, I have used theory to expose students to the stuff electives and methods classes usually don’t expose them to. It is often as though other subfields, like evolutionary sociology, are less important than hotter fields, and thus if they don’t get it in my class, then would they choose an elective on human societies and social evolution? Doubtful, but that is a hypothesis worth testing.
  5. Con #3: This is a little self-serving, but I continue to miss the joy I felt when I first was exposed to theory in my MA program. I was given free-reign by a hardcore Marcusian Marxist trained by a sociobiologist to explore. I read widely. Freud, Fromm, Fanon, Luhmann, Comte, and so on. Two years and so much reading. To be sure, that was as much my own use of time as it was a programmatic. But, theory to me was about reading widely and having serious conversations. A class on theory can be that, but it also raises serious questions about what the point of theory is. If you have students who are learning to write grants or develop research programs, does knowing Nietzsche, Plato, or Rousseau matter? Is it important to debate how much of an influence Kant had on Durkheim? Is it worth spending precious time exploring critiques like Marcuse’s when they are rooted in impossible to prove critical analyses? Just what are we up to?
  6. Pro #3: The class is getting closer to what I think is a good theory class. The end result was to produce a theoretical paper, not just a review of a literature or subfield. The five papers (I have read their outlines and intros, to date) are actually amazing ideas. Will they be executed the first go-around? I don’t know. Is it a case of randomness (five really great students) or the class provided certain tools? Also, unknown. But, I can say for the first time every paper – even those that sit outside of what I would write as theory – look really great and potentially publishable under the right circumstances. Students took chances, in many cases, and are trying really difficult but creative things. So, that is a win.

About Seth Abrutyn

Theorist. Institutional evolutionary teleological existentialist. Interested in emotions, social psychology, macro-historical social change, suicide, and why/how patterned thinking, feeling, and doing clusters in some collectives and not others.
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1 Response to Initial Results: Teaching Grad Theory

  1. John Holley says:

    Thanks for this very interesting overview. I enjoyed finding out what a grad theory course covers and I especially appreciate your candid evaluations of what you achieved. You have prompted me to think of lots of follow up questions. John Holley http;//holleysociology.com

    Liked by 1 person

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