"Living Theory" (Contemporary Sociologist, 2013. Debate with Alan Sica about teaching theory)
"Living Theory: Principles and Practices of Teaching Social Theory Ethnographically" (Teaching Sociology, 2016) by Chris Herring,.Manuel Rosoldo, Josh Seim, and Benjamin Shestakofsky
I have been teaching “The History of Sociological Theory” since I arrived in Berkeley in 1976. Neil Smelser, then chair of the sociology department, took quite a gamble in asking me to fill a hole in the course offerings that year. I was no theorist by any stretch of the imagination, having received Bs and Cs for my theory papers in graduate school. It became a case of a course teaching the teacher rather than the teacher teaching the course. But I soon became an unapologetic enthusiast for social theory, aided by two Berkeley golden gifts: first, the willingness of undergraduates -- undaunted by numbers that can rise to over 200 per course or by their dazzling diversity -- to enter into disciplined dialogue with me and with one another; and, second, the devotion of generations of brilliant and dedicated graduate student teachers. The combination was and is electric.
In the beginning the course was but a single quarter long but in 1980, in response to popular demand, we converted it to a two-quarter course and when, in 1984 we moved over to the semester system, it became a year-long course. Since then it has become the mainstay and distinctive mark of the Berkeley undergraduate degree, and we now even offer a non-required third semester of social theory for addicts.
What is social theory? I have likened it to a map of the social world. Maps simplify the world -- they tell us how to get to where we are going, they serve different purposes. So the same with social theories. They too are simplifications, telling us where we might go, pointing to dangerous or forbidden territory, raising very differermnt questions about the social world. I have also likened social theory to a lens without which we cannot see society. We all share social maps, we all wear lenses. That's what makes us members of society. We are, therefore, like it or not, all social theorists. Sociological theory, however, is a special type of social theory. It sees the world as a problem, a world that is less than perfect, a world that could be different. Sociological theory questions what we take for granted. It challenges common sense, showing the partiality of its truth, how in our daily lives we misrecognize what we are up to. Under the spell of sociological theory common sense, from being something natural and inevitable, becomes something socially constructed (and durably so), but also artificial and arbitrary. In this sense sociological theory is always critical theory. For that reason sociological theory is unsettling and subversive, but it also potentially liberates us from the eternal present.
From the beginning I have taken the view that a course in sociological theory is simultaneously a course in reading, writing and thinking. Accordingly, I assign small but carefully selected pieces of classical texts, which students read and reread until, with the help of lectures and sections, they follow an unfolding panorama of theory. This is what I call the ethnographic approach to theory. In calling for intense engagement with manageable portions everyone can participate in compiling them into large vistas. It is opposed to the survey method that requires students to cover broad swaths of reading, which privileges the teacher as the supreme power but also those students trained in the quick read and the superficial essay. The ethnographic approach digs deeper and lasts longer.
Building theory from scratch assumes nothing. It becomes the art of drawing tables and diagrams, a skill students learn in the course, culminating in art exhibits at the end of the year. During the year the course calls for 11 short (1,000 word) papers, which favor brevity and clarity over length and obscurity. Again the pedagogy is designed to make theory accessible to all. The challenge of teaching is to capture everyone’s imagination – to discover the wealth in poverty and the poverty in wealth. The challenge of teaching is to have all students exceed their own expectations, and to develop talents they didn’t suspect they had.
I’m often asked how 19th. Century European writers can form the foundation of a social theory course. So I endeavor to show just how contemporary these writers are, how their profundity stretches over centuries. Moreover, we show how these masters, far from being authors of arid texts, light up the world around us. At the end of two semesters students are instinctively reading newspapers, watching television through different theoretical lens, negotiating their worlds with different sociological maps. Over the years, and at the initiative of Graduate Student Instructors, we have incorporated as a central part of the course what we used to call “Theory in Action” papers, what we now call “Living Theory” – living in theory and, thus, making it live. Throughout the year students write short commentaries that bring theory into conversation with concrete experiences -- their own and that of others. We now have a living theory blog to which everyone can contribute.
So what texts do we read? The ethnographic approach to social theory insists not only on constructing conversations between life and theory but also between and among theories. There are two ways of achieving the latter: dialogue can generate an evolving theoretical tradition or deepen theory through adversarial debate. In the first semester, we build a Marxist theoretical tradition by laying out and then showing the weaknesses of Marx and Engels, weaknesses that are successively addressed by Lenin, Gramsci and Fanon. For each theorist history throws up particular anomalies and contradiction in the writings of their predecessors. In this way theory lives on as an ever-expanding tradition.
In the second semester, theory elaborates itself through argument, Durkheim versus Marx, Weber versus Lenin, Foucault versus Gramsci, and Beauvoir versus Fanon as well as the disagreements they have among themselves. In ending with feminism we call into question the entire course, by posing the repressed question of the relation between theorist and theory. Radical feminism asserts that location is destiny, that men produce sociology for men, that women, potentially at any rate, produce a sociology for women. How, then, we must ask, could Marx, bourgeois intellectual that he is, claim to develop a theory that defends the interests of the working class? How, then, could Durkheim, ensconced in an ivory tower, claim to be developing an objective view of the world?
To even contemplate such an ambitious program it is necessary to have a singular focus that makes dialogue among theorists meaningful. In our case the singular focus is the division of labor around which we reconstruct the classics of sociological theory. How do our theorists define the meaning and forms of the division of labor and how do they see the origins, development, future of the division of labor. Where does sociology itself fit into the division of labor it claims to study? Sociology is fond of such revelatory questions since it believes that the road to freedom is paved with disconcerting truth.