Soci 3023

Modern Sociological Theory


This course introduces you to some of the most exciting contemporary social theory. I hope you'll agree! It is seldom easy but it is nearly always interesting. I won't say more now. Wait for the first class!

Course Structure, Attendance and Participation

I lecture on Mondays and Wednesdays, and I also encourage you to ask questions, make comments and so on. Fridays are nearly always discussion classes based on assigned readings and 'countable' assignments.

Exams and Assignments

We spend two weeks each on 6 topics or themes. You are required to to do a total of three exam questions, one major paper and a group presentation and individual paper, during the course. These must be on a minimum of 3 of the 6 topics we cover. In other words, you can specialize in 3 of our 6 topics, although you should be familiar with all topics, as some questions will ask you to draw connections between topics. Your major paper and your group paper cannot be on the same topic; and you cannot [obviously!] answser on the same topics on your mid-term and final; other than that, there can be overlap.

There will be a mid-term test in the 6th week, with a question each on the first two topics, of which you answer one. If you do not wish to answer on either of these you do not have to do the test, but in that case you will not get a mid-term grade. If you do not write the mid-term, you will answer three questions in three hours on the final exam, which will consist of 6 questions, one on each topic. If you wrote the mid-term, you will answer two questions in two hours on the same final exam.

Evaluation is based on the following: knowledge of the material covered in lectures, readings and tutorials, or in the case of an essay, knowledge derived from the literature review; understanding and grasp of this material together with the ability to think analytically and critically, not merely to summarize or repeat course material; the development of an argument or a thesis; the quality of the writing and composition.

You should be aware that in general in order to get more than a C plus or B minus your work must be more than a good summary of the relevant course material. That is it must show some degree of analytical and critical ability and thoughtfulness. Many students misunderstand this aspect of the conventional university marking system.

A summary of assigments and the grade breakdown are as follows:

Optional mid-term test: 15%
Group seminar and individual paper: 20%
Major essay: 35%
Final exam: 30% [or 45% if you chose not to write the mid-term.]


The course text is a reader edited by me and published by Canadian Scholars Press. I will also be distributing some material in class. There will also be a lot of material on reserve, which I will refer to during lectures and in the weekly study hints which I distribute.


N.B. Additional readings will be referred to in the weekly study hints and in lectures.

1 George Herbert Mead and the generalized other

Mead, an American philosopher who did most of his work in the first 30 years of the twentieth century, comes chronologically between classical sociological theory and the first major modern theory, structural-functionalism. Theoretically, Mead begins with the biological capacities of humans and then builds an account of human linguistic, symbolic and social capacities. The name of Mead is linked to the contemporary school of symbolic interactionism, which we will briefly discuss, but we will also spend some time articulating a 'Meadian' critique of rational choice theory.

G.H. Mead 1934 Mind, Self and Society: From the Standpoint of a Social Behaviourist. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1934. Chs. 7,8,9,10, 11 and 18,19,20,21,22. See also chs. 36, 37 and 41.

James Coleman 1990 Foundations of Social Theory Cambridge, Ma. and London, England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, pp. 249-257, 269-273 and 292-299.

2. Lacan, psychoanalysis and feminism

Week 2: * Luce Irigaray 1985 "This sex which is not one." Pp. 23-33 in This Sex Which is Not One Translated by Catherine Porter. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1985.

Elizabeth Grosz 1990 "The ego and the imaginary." Pp. 24-49 in Jacques Lacan: A Feminist Introduction London and New York: Routledge.

3. Michel Foucault and Power/Knowledge

The themes of the work of Michel Foucault, a French historian, philosopher and social scientist who died in 1984, bear comparison in some respects to the classical sociology of Weber and Durkheim, especially to Weber's analysis of rationalization and Durkheim's analysis of the cult of the individual. In other respects Foucault represents an attempt to develop an alternative conception of social theory. Foucault draws his inspiration from the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) [who was also an important influence on Weber], and thus is opposed to what Foucault might call 'metaphysical' theories of history and society, where for example a society is analyzed in terms of some underlying principle (for example, the mode of production, or the rational actor) or where history is seen as the progressive development of technology or the progressive liberation of man from oppression. Instead, Foucault says, let us look at the surface of things: at the organization of discourse and of knowledge, and let us see how these represent different tactics of power-knowledge, with no single principle underlying them and no necessary progression from one era to another. We conclude by examining the common criticism of Foucault, that he provides no normative or ethical standards for judging or criticizing existing relations of power.

Week 1: "The Repressive Hypothesis." Pp. 291-330 in Paul Rabinow, ed. The Foucault Reader New York: Pantheon Books. [R]

Michel Foucault 1979 "The Body of the Condemned." Pp. 3-31, 309 in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison Translated by Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage Books.

Week 2: Nancy Fraser 1989 "Foucault on Modern Power: Empirical Insights and Normative Confusions." Pp. 17-34 in Unruly Practices: Power, Discourse and Gender in Contemporary Social Theory Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. [R]

Jana Sawicki 1991 "Foucault and Feminism: A Critical Reappraisal." Pp. 95-109 in Disciplining Foucault: Feminism, Power and the Body. New York and London: Routledge, 1991.

4. Derrida, the socius and the relationship to the other

The contemporary French philosopher Jacques Derrida, who coined the term deconstruction, has had a major influence on contemporary thought. Here we outline the implications of this thought for the study of society, and show how Derrida's approach is both related to and different from a number of the other approaches we have studied.

Week 1: Jacques Derrida 1974 [1967] "'...That Dangerous Supplement...'" Pp. 141-164 in Of Grammatology. Translated by G. Spivak. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Jacques Derrida 1994 "Exordium." Pp. xvii-xx and 177 in Specters of Marx. Translated by Peggy Kamuf. New York and London: Routledge.

Week 2: Derrida, Jacques 1992 "Call It a Day for Democracy." Pp. 84-109 in The Other Heading: Reflections on Today's Europe. Translated by P. Brault and M. Naas. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. [R]

5. Jurgen Habermas versus the 'postmodernists.'

Habermas, a contemporary German philosopher and sociologist in the tradition of the Frankfurt school of Marxist critical theory, in self-conscious contrast to Foucault follows the optimistic Enlightenment tradition where history is seen as the progressive unfolding of human reason, and where social theory is conceived of as a critique which detects and criticizes any impediments to this progressive unfolding. More specifically, Habermas contrasts the technical logic of what he calls the social system to the communicative and norm-governed logic of the 'life-world' and argues that the task of critical theory is to limit the encroachments of the social system into the life-world. This is Habermas' reconstruction of the Marxist criticism of capitalism and the Weberian analysis of rationalization. While providing an overview of Habermas' concerns, we focus especially on his account of the norms implicit in everyday communication in the life-world, which he says provide a normative basis for critical theory (remember that this is just what critics say that Foucault's approach lacks), and on decontructive and 'postmodern' criticisms of this account.

Readings to be announced.

6. Ethnomethodology and Conversation Analysis

Harold Garfinkel, the founder of ethnomethodology in the 1960's, had been a student of Parsons, but in place of Parsons' conception of norm-governed action Garfinkel proposes that social actions are self-organizing and self-explicating. Conversation analysis was developed by Harvey Sacks, a colleague of Garfinkel. Sacks developed a method for demonstrating the organizational features of natural conversation, thus showing the existence of social order at the minutest levels of social interaction. We conclude by presenting and responding to the criticism that conversation analysis is unable to deal with questions about social structure.

Week 1: Wieder, D. Lawrence 1974 "Telling the Code." Pp. 144-172 in Roy Turner, ed., Ethnomethodology Harmondsworth, Eng.: Penguin. [R]

Week 2: Anssi Perakyla and David Silverman 1991 "Reinterpreting speech-exchange systems: communication formats in AIDS counselling." Sociology 25.4: 627-651. [R]

Emannuel Schegloff 1987 "Between Micro and Macro: Contexts and Other Connections." Pp. 208-234 in Jeffrey Alexander and Bernhard Giesen, eds., The Micro-Macro Link Berkeley: University of California Press.

7. Dorothy Smith and a Sociology for Women

Dorothy Smith, an influential English-born Canadian sociologist whose principal works have been published from the 1970's up to the present, attempts to combine the phenomenological and ethnomethodological concern with the 'life-world' and the Marxist concern with inequality, to analyze the position of women. After presenting Smith's work, we examine a criticism of Smith that claims that ethnomethodology and marxism are incompatible, and then we look at the postmodern feminist alternative to Smith.

Week 1: Dorothy Smith 1987 "Researching the Everyday World as Problematic." Pp. 181-207 in The Everyday World as Problematic: A Feminist Sociology. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. [R]

Dorothy Smith 1987 "A Sociology for Women." In The Everyday World as Problematic: A Feminist Sociology. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Dorothy Smith 1987 From "The Everyday World as Problematic: A Feminist Methodology" Pp. 114-117 and 136-140 in The Everyday World as Problematic: A Feminist Sociology. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Chris Doran, "Institutional Ethnography as Problematic: Recursion and Ideology in Dorothy Smith's Macro-sociology." Forthcoming in Sociological Review

Dr. Colm Kelly
Sociology 1006 - Introduction to Sociology
Sociology 3013 - Classical Sociological Theory
Sociology 3023 - Modern Sociological Theory
Sociology 3533 - Special topics "Derrida and the Future of the Social."
Sociology 4013 - Senior Seminar: The Modern University
Sociology 4033 - Advanced Sociological Theory

Sociology / Faculty / STU Homepage