Teaching Sociological Theory


I am engaged in teaching sociological theory (as a component of social theory) on a variety of undergraduate courses, and I am writing a textbook (provisional title Teaching Yourself Social Theory), which I also think of as ‘teaching’. In what follows, I would like to try out some ideas on engaging student experience and knowledge as a  resource in such teaching.

Idea #1 – ‘enabling myths’
It might be convenient to suggest to students that there are two (not necessarily ‘real’) phases in theorising. There is a phase in theorising which connects with ‘normal’ social experiences, and there is a subsequent phase of professional theorising which is located in academic institutions and which follows their conventions and works within their constraints (the ‘contexts’ for academic texts in the terms of Bennett (1998)).

This (mythical) first phase can be used to introduce some classic social theory, based upon the familiar story that the ‘founding parents’ were concerned with their experience of the impact of ‘industrialisation’ on their societies. Having drafted a list of consequent problems (with a contemporary gloss, of course), it becomes possible to introduce theories as answers to them – Durkheim on the problem of social order, Marx on the mechanisms of capitalism, Weber on rationality, Chicago School on the ‘melting pot’, and so on. Development can be traced as a growing technical formalisation of these problems, leading to concepts as it were – to ‘social facts’, ‘surplus value’ and ‘rationalisation’, for example – which are still recognisable as rooted in theorised experience. A slightly more loaded story, of ‘lightning flashes’ of ‘discovery’ or even of ‘epistemological breaks’, might be developed in addition.

The equally mythical second phase involves both the continued formalisation of experience AND critical reaction (obeying professional and scholarly conventions) to the concepts of the first phase. In this phase concepts are developed but also tested, applied, amended, extended, combined, transcended, replaced and so on by university professionals who find (inevitable) flaws, puzzles and absences in the initial theorisations – thus dysfunctions and strains are added, political effects newly theorised, subjectivities explored, ‘subcultures’ clarified – and so on. The field expands and settles into generative ‘traditions’, ‘perspectives’ or ‘schools’, as in Collins’s (1994) account. Waves of additional theorising from parallel fields (psychology, economics, anthropology and then linguistics or various philosophies) are incorporated or fought off. The influence of specific constraints of institutionalisation, the needs to pursue research programmes, justify rational theory choice, publish, engage with pedagogical structures, relate to funding agencies and so on, are as important as the need to clarify experience and address everyday problems.

Idea #2 – reflexive examples
Seeing ‘second phase’ theorising as the result of professionalisation and institutionalisation enables the second tie with experience to be developed. Theorising goes on in universities, and university life offers some experiences shared between students and staff. This can be linked explicitly to the task of applying social theory as the examples below might indicate.

1. There is quite a lot of oldish marxist analysis of academic life as ‘ideology’. Some more concrete examples I have used include trying out Althusser’s notion of ‘hailing’ [see file] on the mechanisms of university assessment schemes (instead of his actual examples), and exploring (student) reactions and resistances in terms of ‘coding and decoding’ in Hall, ‘multi-accentuality’ in Volosinov, or ‘counter-identification’ in Pêcheux.

2. Habermas on the ‘ideal speech act’ could be used to try and grasp the peculiar nature of academic discourse, as he briefly suggests himself at one point. Students might critically apply additional concepts like ‘distorted communication’ or ‘strategic communication’ too. These concepts might be tried out on notions of the ‘ideal seminar’, perhaps, or on types of  ‘student involvement’.

3. I have ‘applied’ work in media theory on narratives as (ideological) ‘positioning devices’ to invite reflection upon academic narratives and their possible effects in ‘academic realism’ [see file] . This parallels some of the recent critiques of ‘ethnographic realism’ as an effect of writing. Many other forms of ‘linguistic’ analysis could be applied too, no doubt.

4. Work on distance education offers interesting case-studies applying the work of Giddens on modernity, thus engaging various ‘postmodernists’ and ‘postfordists’.

5. Popular accounts of university management have already been analysed explicitly by Ritzer and others as examples of ‘McDonaldisation’ [see file] , and there are other approaches using the more sociological aspects of Foucaldian analysis (e.g. on the ‘micropolitics’ of university organisation). 

6. More generally, Foucault has inspired at least one plea to ‘deconstruct’ academic sociology; Foucault’s methods would make an interesting addition to ‘methods’ courses.

7. I have used Bourdieu’s work in Distinction to sociologise some of the current work on student study skills and orientations – the ‘deep/surface’ approaches can be mapped as ‘high’ and ‘popular’ aesthetics with some success. Bourdieu’s notion of ‘habitus’ appears more concretely in his Homo Academicus , and his Outline of a Theory of Practice looks equally promising an ‘application’ of the term, offering ways to explore ‘practical’ courses in universities as well as commentaries on the ‘schools’ in sociology.

There must be many other possible examples: Goffman’s work on the back-stage world of the professional applied to pedagogues, Durkheim on graduation day rituals (and on subject benchmarking?), Becher on academic tribalism, Lutz on university witch-hunts, Garfinkel on assessment as a coding problem. Of course there are dangers and problems here, but at least students might genuinely have something to offer in any critical discussions if these potentially ‘wild’ and reflexive applications are pursued instead of the old, safe, familiar ones. These examples can also help all parties to recognise some often neglected aspects of theorising, often buried deep in the academic habitus  – it can be risky, partial, and  intertwined with power relations and social constraints, for example, and not at all the technical, ‘rational’ (and abstract and dry) pursuit that it can seem to be.

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