The Pedagogical Dead-End Known as “Classical” Sociological Theory

This is the first in a series of (increasingly more practical) posts about teaching classical theory; or, perhaps, not teaching it. I have written about  this elsewhere, recently tweeted a thread, and recently recorded two different podcasts (here and here) about this issue in two different ways. It seems intractable, to be honest, as one side seems entrenched and unable to imagine a discipline that does not constantly reiterate and socialize its neophytes in the lore and theoretical morass of the classics. Hell bent on resurrecting long-lost theorists, returning to old philosophical questions of Kant or Plato, or simply raising (legitimate) critique of the who, what, why of the canon. On the other side, is merely a bunch of unrelated scholars who “know” something is wrong, but who do not know how to reconfigure something so ingrained in sociology: the dichotomy between classical and contemporary sociology. I want to do a couple of things here, beginning with briefly pointing our why this is a problem, both in practico-pedagogical terms and in theoretico-scientific terms. From there, I use another brief example (one which my colleague Anna Mueller and I have written about many, many times in many, many places). Finally, I present the (on-going) solution I have settled on for the time being. I will return in future posts, some soon to come as reflections on what has and hasn’t worked thus far, and a sort of final take after this term is over.

Crystallized, Sedimented Navel Gazing
At the core of my argument is what I have termed the twin issues of the time crunch and the arms race. The former refers to the fact that undergraduate and graduate departments in North America are faced with cramming almost 200 years (or more if, say, you begin with Adam Smith) sociological theory and social philosophy into two 13 to 15 week courses (or, worse, sometimes in one “blended course” – something I am familiar with from my tenure at U Memphis). It’s frankly impossible, and invites arbitrary decision-making and, for non-specialists, reliance on (pretty crappy) textbooks. The latter is the current trend, driven partly by textbook revision demands, but also by many social theorists’ proclivity to search for the etiological meaning of a concept or term, look for a philosophical precursor, or simply revive old dead people because god knows we need more papers on more super obscure sociologists (for a fun read, check out what was “contemporary” theory in 1928). Both of these issues are creating a wide-range of problems for both pedagogical practices and for training future social scientists such that theory is something they can use and not something they find dry, obscurantist, esoteric, dense, vague, or something that weird old guy in our department does in his free time instead of collecting data. Here are some of the consequences…

Thought or Theory? Social or Sociological? The biggest issue I see, is what we are teaching. I am 100% for a course on the history of social thought and/or sociology, but Classical THEORY is theory, not thought, history, or philosophy. For the latter, there are both great tomes written on the subject (for the best, in my opinion, see Becker and Barnes [1961] from Lore to Social Science), and, I presume, entire departments like philosophy already devoted to this area of study. Theories are, by definition, sets of concepts and statements about their relationship. That’s it. Just because we get to invent neologisms like institutionalization or habitus, and debate conceptual definitions about power or class, does not entitle us to redefine an entire practice (science) that already has widespread consensus. A course on classical theory, then, should not be interested in Weber’s mental breakdown, or Comte’s goofy invention of a religion; nor should it care what Nietzsche speculated about. It’s chief concern is distilling what theoretical principles the classics provided us with, the methodological approaches built on or from these principles, and the lasting legacy today. For instance, it is ok to teach Marx’s stage-model, but if one does, we shouldn’t teach it as taken for granted fact, but actually interrogate its crappiness in theoretical and empirical reality. He not only knew nothing about preliterate societies, he substitutes his own philosophical commitments on human nature for good social scientific theory building. That’s the lesson there. I’ll say more on this with another example, soon, but let’s consider the fall out here (also, feel free to skip the rant here and move to the suicide stuff below).

  1. Who teaches theory? Whether or not there are  theorists anymore, or whether the discipline needs a specialization in theory is besides the point here. The simple fact is that the push back I receive about how we teach theory and why classical is necessary is always from established scholars. I am sure they have the time and leisure, like myself, to think a lot about theory and craft intensive courses that actually mitigate many issues I see as plaguing the false dichotomization of theory. But, let’s be honest: not only is theory not a specialization, but most jobs hire people for other things and ask if they can teach theory. Moreover, more departments than not “farm” theory (along with intro, methods, etc) to vulnerable, underemployed adjuncts, lecturers, and so forth. Overworked, these folks smartly rely on the resources available to teach sociology, and thus they use textbooks and these textbooks reinforce and reproduce all of the problems. It is not their fault, it’s the discipline’s weird infatuation with theory (we hang our hat on the belief that we are the best social science because everything we do is oriented towards theory), yet its near total ambivalence towards theorists, theory training, theory construction classes, and scientific theorizing.
  2. They Did This, Don’t Do That. Relatedly, one argument for keeping the course as conventionally taught is the sociological imagination. To be sure, Durkheim’s Elementary Forms or Marx’s German Ideology are inspired, creative pieces. Indeed, we revere the classics for the scope, scale, and imaginativeness. But we achieve the opposite by teaching them the way we do. We ignore the sociological lessons gleaned about written work and its powerful taken for granted authority. The beatification of Marx or Durkheim in textbooks, courses, and implicitly in the oft-repeated dictum that we must teach the saints lest the discipline lose its integrative capacity, makes their work seem dead; finished; crystallized. It transforms the reader’s relationship to the texts, making them artifacts from which we might conduct archaeological digs or biblical exegesis. It defames and disfigures and obscures the very freedom to create with which those authors took liberties. I cannot tell you how many times Anna and I have had a reviewer respond to a paper on suicide that is trying to push beyond Durkheim by asking: “but which type would this be in Durkheim’s model”? This is not creativity. It ignores that Durkheim’s work is excellent for the very reason that he was not saddled with the baggage of some sedimented tradition that everyone must know, recite by heart, and worship in orthodoxy.
  3. Learning by not learning. 1 and 2 often lead to many students learning “facts,” that simply aren’t facts. It is irresponsible to teach Marx’s “primitive” communism without setting the empirical record straight; or crystallizing Durkheim’s four-fold model without noting that only one of the four types has received consistent, enduring empirical support; or that the classical theorist’s ingrained fear of urbanization and its discontents was not based on empirical science, but on speculation about human nature (cf. Maryanski and Turner 1992). We have a responsibility not only to impart meaning to anomie and alienation, but also the fact that there is not a consistent definition of these concepts, nor has there been any effort to create operationalized consistency such that we can actually evaluate what these concepts are and whether they actually do things to people.
  4. Institutionalizing (Not) Theorizing. In sociology, as Abend’s (2008) article notes, there are myriad definitions of theory – and, don’t get me wrong, all of them are legitimate scholarly practices. Many of these are borne of the classical convention, and most aren’t theory by any scientific standard. There are, for instance, the exegetical deep-dives. I love reading, by the way, new letters Durkheim sent to Mauss or marginalia by Weber when he was in a particular manic phase. But, revealing them is not theory, it is exegesis and should be called as such. We’ve all engaged in it, but the question is always end result. I recently dug through Durkheim’s myriad thoughts on anomie, as well as many others (Abrutyn 2019). The end result, however, was not a descriptive piece on what we missed, but a theory building exercise that offered propositional statements designed to operationalize anomie more efficaciously and consistently. One is free to add or subtract propositions, but they stand as effort to do theory instead of look for ways other theorists did it.A second, and more nefarious, tendency is the creeping nature of philosophic deep-dives. These are, in essence, well-intentioned, but ultimately gatekeeping activities. Consider the following: having taught undergrad theory for almost 13 years every year, and grad theory in one capacity or another for 9, I can tell you that most sociologists are not and never will be theorists; nor do they want to; nor does the discipline need them to be. I bet, however, if you took a poll, most would say they hated their theory course because it seemed so detached from the rest of their training. Why? Because the philosophization of theory is not theorizing or scientific. There is a reason Comte placed positivist science as the next evolved stage after the metaphysical; there is a reason some classical theorists have been elevated over the very extensive range of possibilities:those committed (besides Marx) to the rigorous empirical verification of what would have once been called moral philosophy make more sense to a science than those speculating endlessly about human nature. Most students want to study “X”, not spend years reading further and further into a Kantian rabbit hole. They don’t have the time, desire, or perhaps training. Nor should they, because it doesn’t really matter. I am not saying theory shouldn’t be hard, it should. It should be abstract. But, by keeping the deep-dives we make it unnecessarily esoteric and strip it of its parsimony and potential power to guide research. Particularly classical theory, which is cited in introductions and lit reviews and discussions, but the mystery behind the direct relationship between a classical theorist/theory and empirical work is often disjointed as conscious and unconscious gatekeeping of theorists and their spheres of (decreasing) influence.
  5. But, We Must Contextualize Theorists! Knowledge is a Social Construct. My biggest pet peeve: “we must contextualize the theorists, otherwise we miss why they did what they did!” Nonsense. Either a concept or set of concepts is generalizable over time and space, or its not. If it’s not, then it is a more serious indictment that a social science spends an entire semester studying theory that is constrained to its time (mostly 19th century) and place (mostly continental Europe). Yet, we draw from it today, so it has applicability, presumably, with advanced or post-industrial societies, and thus implies generalizability. Why should anomie be restricted to urban societies? Or rationalization a process only found in contemporary formal organizations? By pushing contextualization we continue to reproduce the myth that premodern and modern times were drastically different in every way. They weren’t. We want to them to be, because radical change easily accounts for why society is so bad today, or why human societies are so unnatural. But, that isn’t rooted in empirical analysis, but rather ideology and golden ageism.
  6. The Double Problem: Lost Generations and Old Wine, New Bottles. Finally, we have the double problem of the classics. Mostly, this is rooted in the arbitrary decisions teachers must make in the face of the time crunch. The first problem stems from the question of what is classical? Is it pre-20th century? If so, then Mead/Blumer/Park and many others are out. So, is it pre-Parsons or is The Structure of Social Action the break point? So, what about “lost generations” of theorists like Sorokin, Elias, Eisenstadt, Shils, and so on, and on, and on. Or can we say dead theorists are classical as they aren’t writing any more? They aren’t actively contributing to the discourse. Goffman is dead, is he classical? Berger, Blau, and many others. If not, what is contemporary? The last 20 years? The 1960s, forward? It makes no sense.A second problem stems from the arbitrary choices we make: we are habitually engaged in pouring old wine into new bottles. In part, we are trained to forget key concepts and ideas, so we “rediscover” them constantly, only to find out sooner or later than someone else already posited it. Then, once we’ve reinvented the wheel we spend a ton of time using logic to argue why our concept is different and, presumably, superior to the old ones. Rather than just engage in cumulative knowledge construction, we spend inordinate amounts of time searching for distinction and uniqueness. So much has been lost, only to be found again. It may seem boring to suggest every sociologist should learn a basic set of principles (after all, it is not as exciting as reading Marx’s anger in the manifesto or Durkheim’s gorgeous creativity in the elementary forms), but why not build a discipline from some basic, mundane, boring principles, and then add layers of excitement to it.

Suicide and its Discontents
I am not going to spill a lot of computer ink here, but the status quo teaching of classics has real life consequences for doing innovative, good research that has real-world impacts. We all know peer-review is the necessary evil, and we all know publishing work in the most visible journals is key to both a strong career and perhaps pushing your work beyond the boundaries of the profession. Yet, sociology remains unconsciously wedded to the idea that we have to cite all of the relevant masters in most of our research (fine), and, especially, in ANY research related to one of the saints. So, every time I write a paper about suicide, I HAVE to cite Durkheim, otherwise, predictably, a reviewer or two will call me out. Call me out with nonsensical points like: what would Durkheim have said? Or, which of the “boxes” in his four-fold model would this fit? Worse, is the assumption what we are saying was said, in some way, shape, or form, by D himself. Look, I am not bragging, because it is exhausting to think this: I have read Suicide about 50 times in the last four years (front to back) and specific individual chapters another 50 times. I think I comfortably know what he said, not what my grad class from 15 years ago taught me or what Ritzer said or what anyone thinks they’re sure of. Some basic facts that are never taught with Suicide in theory:

  1. His own student, Maurice Halbwachs (1978) wrote a book, The Causes of Suicide, several decades after Durkheim’s death, demonstrating two key things. Explicitly, he demonstrated that a lot of D’s analyses suffered from data limitations (Halbwachs used similar data, but over a long period of time) and overly simplistic notions of multivariate logic (e.g., it wasn’t Protestants, per se, but urban Protestants). Implicitly, Halbwachs cast significant doubt on the integration/regulation dimensions, appearing to place the former front and center and making the second disappear.
  2. To that effect, in the mid-century, Barclay Johnson (1965) published an important paper that cogently argued Durkheim only had one dimension, integration. Since then, sociologists have struggled to reconcile Durkheim’s own ambiguities about regulation, as he himself sometimes treated them independently, and other times as caused by the other (particularly regulation caused by integration).
  3. Never mind the fact that his chapter on anomie is filled with vagaries and inconsistencies. For instance, how can economic recessions and booms both cause lack of regulation? The former seems to narrow one’s life choices, and thus is really the cause of greater regulation! Or, what he would have termed fatalism. Unsurprisingly, anomie means nothing and everything (but mostly the Mertonian-Parsonian interpretation of normlessness) (Abrutyn 2019), and its relationship to suicide rates is extremely inconsistent in empirical verification (Breault 1994).
  4. And, what of D’s theory’s generalizability? Well, how about the fact that only one of the four types has empirical consistency (egoism)? And, worse, how about the fact that virtually zero studies on altruism and fatalism exist ()Stack 2010; Abrutyn and Mueller 2018). These two types, in Durkheim’s description, leave traces of his own implicit, Eurocentric biases and, whenever we try to fix them, we always get pushback from someone who thinks reconceptualizing Durkheim’s great work is blasphemous.
  5. Finally, for five decades, the best suicide scholarship has focused on diffusion between personal role models (e.g., how/why having a friend or family member attempt/compete suicide puts the exposed at risk; Bearman and Moody 2004; Baller and Richardson 2009; Abrutyn and Mueller 2014) and why some places are more vulnerable to diffusion processes than others (Haw et al. 2014; Mueller and Abrutyn 2016). Yet, based on requests for manuscript reviews, you would never know this. 95% (if not more) of everything I am asked to review is testing/retesting Durkheim’s nineteenth century hypotheses. Zero consideration of theoretical advances (and not just my own, but Pescosolido; Bearman; Baller/Richardson; so on), and with the only real hook being new data and/or new statistical technique. No contribution, but an easy publication because journals love the appearance of revisiting the classical theorists! But, they too are complicit in the reproduction not of knowledge, but cultural capital and poor pedagogy.

Moving Forward
The most serious solution would be the recreation of a theory specialization that combined learning the wide expanse of theory/theorists with courses in theory construction, but, to be sure, this is not only unlikely but probably unrealistic. In my younger days, my thought was a shift from classical/contemporary to, perhaps, two courses on macro and then microsociology. But, without a theory specialization, it is difficult to ask a typical sociologist to be well-versed in both realms, let alone the fact that true macrosociology has become the provenance of historical sociologists, pseudo-functionalists, and world-systems-like social scientists. Generally, meso-level (e.g., orgs, fields, communities) are blended with some type of micro-level stuff. Moreover, this approach might simply recreate the same problems related to the arms race and time crunch.

At this point, I made a decision two weeks ago to overhaul my classical theory course. It is hybridized because the syllabus and textbook (Jonathan Turner’s Emergence of Sociological Theory) had already been designed and a total-overhaul the day before the first day seemed overwhelming. The course itself returns to a basic organizing principle I borrowed from a little read book by Eisenstadt (1985) that I had used before but with the original texts and focus on theorists. In short, he distinguishes three overarching “problems” or concerns in the central classics: integration, regulation, and legitimation. He unfortunately assigns one to each saint (Durkheim, Marx, and Weber), but that is easy to disentangle. To this, I add a fourth problem: the social self in which the underlying concerns of past and present (how is “society” at once external and internal) are fused together in a micro-level sociology. The strategy makes a lot of sense to me, as all of the theorists (both canonized and not) speak at length about one or more of these, even if they did not use the terms themselves. It also sets up a principles and concepts of sociology more readily. I will talk about these in greater detail in a follow up post, but for now, here is sort a of a sketch of what I am thinking.

  1. Integration: at the root of all sociology is the social relationship, broadly defined, and the connection between individual to individual, individual to collective, individual to social category, and collective to collective. For Durkheim, this was a moral bond built from mutual interdependence and recurring ritualized interaction. Easily, this allows me to abandon teaching the great works and instead focusing on bigger issues with this approach (e.g., are integrative ties always good? Modern soc would say no!), as well as slipping “contemp” theory into classical (Goffman’s mundane ritual order + Collins’ group/ceremonial order + Lawler’s formal, joint-task affectual order). Yet, one could carry the social relationship thread throughout the unit on integration (Marx’s sense of the economic foundations of social relationships, Simmel’s forms of relationships, Weber’s communal/associational + legitimate orders, and so forth).
  2. Regulation: at the root of all sociology is the twin problems of      control and coordination, or what Michael Mann distinguished as distributive and collective power. For Spencer and Durkheim, it was more about coordinating social units  that were different, while for Marx it was purely about (external) control, while Weber put limitations on power vis-a-vis rationalized organizations. To be sure, Durkheim’s voluntaristic model is explicitly about control too, as is Simmel’s formal sociology, Du Bois reconsideration of Marx’s simplistic division of workers-owners into a racialized division of labor, and so on. Like integration, this type of sociological theory invites principles like Lenski’s (1966) principles of power or Blumberg’s (1984) or its later modified version with various colleagues (1993), while also leaving room for the cultural Marxism of the Frankfort school, Bourdieusian fields, Foucauldian power, Blau/Emerson’s power-dependence exchange stuff, and on and on.
  3. Legitimation: at the root of all sociology is the question of how reality comes to be shared (or believed to be shared) and, conversely, how it shapes/constrains emotions and behavior. Thus, besides normative and external forces of power, symbolic reality is central to the work of Mead and his generalized other; Weber and his thoughts on social orders, action, and authority; Marx and alienation; Durkheim and the bottom-up construction of social knowledge; Simmel and his oft-ignored but excellent thoughts on money and media of exchange; Du Bois’ double-consciousness; and so on. To be sure, from Weber, Simmel, Husserl, and Schutz, we can easily bring in ethnomethodology, Berger/Luckmann, Bourdieu, Geertz, much cultural sociology, socialization and enculturation, and a lot of other related topics.
  4. Selfing: at the root of some sociology is the question of how the self is constructed, maintained, and changed (though, the latter issue is much less developed). Here we have the American tradition in full-force, though it would be silly to suggest Durkheim, Simmel, and Weber were totally naive to the self. But, we also get threads central to sociology today: structural microsociology (Goffman; Stryker; Burke; Heise) v. agentic (Blumer); meaning/role-taking and meaning/role-making; again, socialization, enculturation, practice, and so forth; marginalization, phenomenology, lived experience, and a whole host of methodological, ontological, and other philo of sci issues. Roles, status, identities, encounters, exchanges, small groups…the gamut of stuff this final unit can cover is immense, which is partly why my previous thought was to go macro and micro over two terms. But, this thread brings to a close many of the loose ends found in integration, regulation, and legitimation.

More to come…








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.
This entry was posted in Musings on Sociological Theory, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Pedagogical Dead-End Known as “Classical” Sociological Theory

  1. Gabe Ignatow says:

    Seth, I’m surprised you haven’t (yet) touched on the “theorizing” movement of Swedberg and others. No doubt you’re well aware of it, but in any event:


  2. Pingback: A Cultural Theory of Suicide? | Seth Abrutyn, PhD

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