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Vaughn Tan SOCIOLOGY 97. SOCIAL THEORY. Our agenda. Introductions Logistics Sociology as a social science What is social theory and what’s it good for? Jeff Alexander’s view of social theory Theory in daily life The course. Logistics. Front-loaded class Grading Papers

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Presentation Transcript

Vaughn Tan



Our agenda

  • Introductions

  • Logistics

  • Sociology as a social science

  • What is social theory and what’s it good for?

  • Jeff Alexander’s view of social theory

  • Theory in daily life

  • The course


  • Front-loaded class

  • Grading

  • Papers

  • No late work (really)

  • Weekly quotes

  • Class participation

  • Laptop policy

Every week

  • At least 6 hours to read this stuff.

    • I plan on 10-12 hours myself.

  • Plan accordingly.

sociology as a social science

Sociology. What is it?

  • Sociology is the study of social phenomena.

  • Social phenomena = People doing stuff together.

  • Same roots (thinkers, motivations, problems) as the other social sciences, which also study people doing stuff together.

  • Today, some things distinguish sociology from the other social sciences.

A history of social science

  • Why?

    • To show that the study of society develops differently based on context.

      • Time

      • Place

      • Power distributions

      • Incumbents

A history of social science.

  • Just one example: Sociology (Collins, 38-46)

  • Overall, a generalising science driven by political ideology and reform.

  • Morphologically plastic: Different form under different conditions

A history of social science.

  • US:

    • University expansion in late 1800s, few faculty or department incumbents, recruitment of students, emphasis on liberalism and thus social policy.

  • Germany:

    • Most sociology kept outside universities until liberalism of the Weimar Rep. in the interwar period. Emphasis on historical materialism.

  • France:

    • Liberal Third Republic (1870s), established university faculties required sociology to borrow credibility by using tools of other disciplines.

  • England

    • Established faculties at old universities, no foothold until universities began expanding in 1960s, then emphasis on policy.

Modern American sociology.

  • How is modern American sociology different from the other social sciences? (10000-foot view)

    • Social anthropology: Generalisation.

    • Economics: Source of motivation; aggregation.

    • Psychology: Main unit of analysis.

  • There are always exceptions in each discipline.

Social theorywhat it iswhat it’s good for

Social theory. What is it?

  • Theory expresses what we understand of social phenomena in a general form

  • Generalisation (grossly simplified)

    • Abstracting from a particular case

    • To develop an explanation about the behavior of all instances of that case

  • Sociology as a discipline tries to understand

    • what

    • who

    • why

    • how

    • when

  • Then figure out when that understanding applies to other situations

The uses of social theory

  • Explanation

  • Prediction

  • Modification

But what’s theory really good for?

Policy making





  • Explanation

  • Prediction

  • Modification

But what’s theory really good for?

Policy making





  • Explanation

  • Prediction

  • Modification

But what’s theory really good for?

Policy making





  • Explanation

  • Prediction

  • Modification




  • Presuppositions affect “facts”

  • Our perception of the world is filtered/modified by our assumptions about how the world works

    • We selectively perceive things

    • We interpret what we selectively perceive

Order and action.

  • Jeff Alexander is a brainy guy who has digested vast swathes of social theory and organized it for us.

    • Sociology is generally interested in action (why people do things) and order (why everything isn’t just chaos).

    • Social theory can be broadly divided into groups that believe in particular reasons for action and order.


  • Rational

    • Instrumental, utility/efficiency maximising

    • Actor is externally driven

  • Normative

    • Idealistic, normative, moral, governed by emotions and unconscious desires

    • Actor is internally driven


  • Collectivist

    • The group imposes order on individuals

    • Individuals likely to act based on social norms

    • Emergent order

  • Individualist

    • Individuals make choices on their own

    • Individual actions make up group behavior

    • Aggregated order

Order and action.

  • This is just one way to conceptually organize the world of sociology, but it happens to be useful for how we’ve structured the course.

Total system vs middle range theory.

  • “What general theories do is take these special theories and bring them together. General theories are theories about everything, about ‘societies’ as such, about modernity rather than any particular modern society, about ‘interaction’ rather than about any particular form or genre of interaction. There are special theories about economic classes in society, about the middle class, the working class, and the upper class. But a general class theory, for example Marxian theory, combines all these special theories about classes into a single theory about economic development and class relations as such.” (Alexander, 3)

  • Total system theory, grand theory, general theory

  • Middle-range theory, specific theory, special theory

Making and validating theory.



Start with a theory

Think through the theory’s consequences/implications

Look at specific cases where the theory has implications

Evaluate whether theory makes sense

  • Study lots of cases

  • See patterns of similarity or difference

  • Generalise from those patterns

theory in daily life

Everyday social theory

The basketball team. We hang out and chill together in each others’ rooms on weekends and practice/play basketball games.

  • I don't enjoy walking from my dorm in the quad to classes, especially when it is freezing cold, but I do it every morning.

Everyday social theory

The Athena Program runs mentoring workshops and conferences around issues of gender empowerment, leadership, and activism for low-income high school girls in the Boston area.

  • As a pajama lover, I dread getting dressed in real clothes every morning.

  • People do things because they realise that those things are good for them.

  • People do things because they are complying with social norms.

  • People cooperate because they share the same purpose.

  • People cooperate because they share the same rewards.

  • People cooperate because social norms compel them to do so.

  • People are more likely to be friends with people who engage in similar activities because they spend more time with each other and are likely to have more in common with each other.

  • People are more likely to be friends with people who are similar to them.

the course

Four traditions in sociology.

  • Randall Collins is also brainy, and has also digested vast swathes of social theory. Unsurprisingly, he gives us another way to organize social theory.

    • Conflict

    • Rational/utilitarian

    • Durkheimian

    • Micro-interactionist

  • Not a perfect classification but, again, useful.


  • Marx, Weber

    • Focuses on interactions between people/groups

    • Resources are unevenly distributed.

    • People/groups have interests which are served by resources.

    • Conflict arises in society when people/groups want to redistribute resources.

    • “materialism”


  • Coleman, Blau, Homans, March, Simon, Hobbes, Mill, Smith

    • Focuses on individuals and their motivations.

    • Main motivation is self-interest.

    • Self-interest is calculated rationally and commensurable.

    • “economistic”


  • Durkheim, lots of cultural sociology today

    • Rituals, symbols, social pressure

    • How we think is conditioned by our social context

    • Ideas are infused into the individual by membership in a group

    • Individual reality is thus constructed by social interaction

    • The group imposes itself and reproduces itself in the individual


  • Mead, Schutz, Blumer, Goffman

    • Individuals interpret the environment with rules that they develop out of previous experience with the environment.

    • Individuals create society (rules of interpretation) out of what we learn from carrying out our daily lives and interacting with the social and physical environments in which we live.

  • Together, Alexander and Collins give us one of many possible ways to think about how to classify the social theory that underlies much of modern American sociology.

  • But it’s not as clear-cut as they (and we) make it seem

  • Think about this matrix as we read each theory, and decide how much you believe it fits in the cell it currently occupies.

  • And ask yourself which theory you believe is true (ie, describes the world you are familiar with), and what that implies.

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