This is a shorter version of the draft syllabus for the Modern and Contemporary Sociological Theory module (course) that I am teaching at Durham’s Department of Sociology. MCST is a 20-credit mandatory undergraduate module in Year 2, covering the period from mid-20th century (roughly, end of World War II) until the present. I run only half the module, so these are 10 sessions.
This is a sample of the syllabus and teaching material. The full and updated version, including preparatory, mandatory and extended reading, seminar activities, and lecture notes/powerpoints are available only to registered Durham students. Please note that the version here is provided for public use under CC_BY_NC_ND 4.0 license, which means you are free to share it with proper attribution, but not use it or any its derivatives for commercial or profit-generating activity, including your own for-profit teaching.
Q1: Why are there only 10 sessions for a year-long, 20-credit course?
A1: Because I teach only half of it.
Q2: Why is there so much content?
A2: Because I want students to get a grasp of the width and breadth of contemporary sociological theory, rather than just focus on a few theorists.
Q3: Why are so few theorists mentioned by name?
A3: Because I teach an approach to theory that is explicitly anti-canonical, which means it aims to encourage thinking theoretically and working with concepts/problems, rather than learning theologically about sociological thinkers, even if they are made a little more diverse than before.
Q4: Why are X, Y, Z absent?
A4: See A3 (it’s possible they’re not) and A1.
Q5: Why is there not more about A, B, C?
A5: See A1, A4. Also, it’s work in progress, suggestions are always welcome.
Q6: Where is Marx?
A6: In Year 1. Also, everywhere.
Q7: Where are Marxist bros?
A7: In Hell, I hope.
Michaelmas Term (Dr Bacevic)
- Introduction: what is theory?
- What is theory for? Critical theory
- What is theory for? Decolonial and postcolonial theory
- Agency and freedom: existentialism, existentialist feminism, and race
- Structure and reproduction: structuralism, structural Marxism, post-structuralism
- Theories of social reproduction: practice theory, reflexivity, social reproduction
- Power and oppression: knowledge, ideology, hegemony
- Power and oppression: gender, race, intersectionality
- What acts? Pragmatist sociology, performativity and affect
- What acts? Posthumanism, necro/ontopolitics and the Anthropocene
This term gives an overview of the development of social theory from the end of World War II until the present. It focuses on the intersections between social and political processes (decolonization and independence movements, crises of social reproduction, new forms of inequality, climate change) and theory as mode of thinking about these processes.
- Introduction. What is theory?
This session explores the concept of social/sociological theory and its different meanings. To some people, ‘theory’ primarily consists of reading and understanding the work of a selected body or group of theorists, also known as ‘the canon’. To others, ‘theory’ primarily consists of ideas or statements about different elements that make up the social world, their relations, and how they shape our lives – and how, in turn, we can shape them. To others, yet, the role of theory includes thinking how to shape these elements to make life as liveable for the greatest number of people; others think this is not the role of theory, or disagree on the kind of objects and actors that should be included in this group. In this session, we will examine the history and examples of these different approaches, and explain the specific approach to theory taken in this part of the module.
Essential (at least two of the following):
Krause, M. (2016). The meanings of theorizing’, British Journal of Sociology 67 (1) https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/1468-4446.12187_4 [OA]
Abend, G. (2008) The Meaning of Theory, Sociological Theory 26 (2), 173-199 
Haslanger, S. (2012) Resisting Reality: Social Construction and Social Critique, Introduction (pp. 3-32).
Swedberg, R. (2016). Before Theory Comes Theorizing, or How to Make Social Sciences More Interesting. https://doi-org.ezphost.dur.ac.uk/10.1111/1468-4446.12184
Bacevic, J. (2017). Theory as practice: for a politics of social theory, or how to get out of the theory zoo. https://janabacevic.net/2017/06/12/theory-as-practice-for-a-politics-of-social-theory-or-how-to-get-out-of-the-theory-zoo/
Connell RW (1997) Why is Classical Theory Classical? American Journal of Sociology, 102(6): 1511-1557. [you have encountered this text already in Classical Sociological Theory in Year 1).
- What is theory for? Critical theory, social theory, and social change
In this session we introduce the body of theories usually known as ‘critical’. While many kinds of theory can be said to offer a critique of different social conditions, the epithet ‘Critical’ (with a capital C) has most often been applied to the strands of Marxist theory associated with what is known as the Frankfurt School, and its successors. In this session, we discuss the origins of critical theory as an attempt to come to terms with the destruction of World War Two, its post-war focus on the role of ideology and mass media in the maintenance of capitalist and American hegemony, as well as discussions around public spheres, the role of democracy, and the crisis of the European Union. Secondly, we engage with the most recent contributions of critical theory, including attempts to deal with the rise of populism and renewed forms of nationalism, fascism, and violence, including that against women, migrants and refugees, and the environment.
- What is theory for? Postcolonial and decolonial theory
This session introduces postcolonial and decolonial challenges to the canon of sociological theory. Focusing on both ‘theory from the South’ and theory developed in the ‘Global North’ that sought to challenge the Eurocentric ‘canon’ of sociology and associated disciplines, it asks: (1) What kind of sociological concepts, ideas and processes are foregrounded or, conversely, omitted when ‘theory’ is written from a Eurocentric perspective? (2) How can we think about the work of theorizing in ways that incorporate non-Western(-centric) ‘ways of seeing’ and thinking about the social?
- Agency and freedom: existentialism, existentialist feminism, and race
In this session, we begin to explore one of the key questions 20th-century social theory: what does it mean to act? Are humans free to act, or is what we do a product of largely impersonal structural forces outside our control? Furthermore, are all humans equally free to act?
We will be approaching these questions through the encounter with a form of philosophy that profoundly shaped European social and political thought leading up to and after World War II: existentialism. While applied to thinkers who both supported and opposed the project of Nazism (Martin Heidegger stands as a clear example of the former, Hannah Arendt of the latter), existentialist thinking was crucial to the development of post-war social theory as it approached human existence as always already social, and thus fundamentally defined by our relationships with and duties towards others. While for Marxism (with which existentialist thinkers maintained a productive dialogue, though not always agreed), these relations were primarily those of production, and thus inequality stemmed primarily from being embedded in capitalism as a fundamentally exploitative mode of production, existentialism highlighted the relevance of mutuality and freedom in the reproduction of some of these relations. In existentialist terms, we are ‘thrown into the world’ which is not of our choosing; however, what we do in that world – how we choose to act – matters. This, of course, does not mean that existentialism ignored differences in power or the historical constitution of conditions for action; but it highlighted the role of responsibility, as well as its abandonment (‘bad faith’).
In this session, we will examine early post-war reflections on agency through the work of three thinkers: Hannah Arendt, Simone de Beauvoir, and Frantz Fanon. The work of all three can be read as an attempt to understand the consequences of World War II, but they emphasized different elements. Arendt was primarily concerned with political and social conditions, such as totalitarianism, under which human beings give up on their freedom. De Beauvoir became famous for reading of inequality through the reproduction of patriarchy, locating the source of constraints to agency in the construction of gendered difference, and women as the ‘Second Sex’. Fanon, meanwhile, developed an analysis of the conditions of unfreedom and oppression that were rooted in racism, colonial exploitation, and capitalism. Their work, which remains enormously influential to this day, asked some of the key questions that would shape 20th-century theorizing: are all of us equally free to act? Are the choices we make an expression of free will, or cultural and social conditioning? Most importantly, how would we know the difference?
- Structure and reproduction: structuralism, structuralist Marxism, post-structuralism
In the 20th century, the question of freedom and agency was pitted against the other fundamental question of social theory: if humans are free to act, how come are some social formations surprisingly stable? While functionalist thinkers (many of which you will encounter in Term 2) argued social elements can be explained through their ‘function’ or ‘purpose’, structuralists focused on the question: what is the origin of these formations? Where do they come from? Are they material, or are they just ‘in our heads’? Do they serve everyone equally, or do they serve to maintain social inequality? In this session, we discuss sociological and anthropological answers to these questions known, variously, as structuralism, structural/cultural Marxism, and poststructuralism.
Structuralism built extensively on structural linguistics and semiotics (the study of meaning), as well as on anthropological research in European colonies, which enabled the construction of an enormous comparative ‘archive’ of human cultures and customs – in which researchers were (sometimes willing, sometimes not) partners in the project of colonial expansion and administration. Scholars in the late 19th and the first half of the 20th century were mostly inclined to study human variation from an evolutionary-historical perspective (with different forms of social and cultural organization supposedly representing different stages of ‘development’, which was often synonymous with licensing the exploitation of those who were seen as less ‘developed’). Structuralists had a different idea: there existed a universal, cross-cultural and transhistorical set of universal characteristics shared across all human societies in time and space, which took different forms – in languages, rituals, customs, organization of space, and other ways of living – but could, with sufficient analytical skill, be ‘excavated’ and studied comparatively.
In social sciences, structuralism is usually associated with the name of Claude Lévi-Strauss, a French anthropologist who constructed interpretative schemata for systems of meaning governed by ‘binary opposites’ – concepts like male/female, raw/cooked, and nature/culture. Structuralists, of course, didn’t claim these binaries existed in ‘pure form’ anywhere in nature, but rather that it is through perception of opposites that humans establish categories, boundaries, and other phenomena relevant to the ‘social’. In addition to linguistics, structuralism was profoundly shaped by Freudian psychoanalysis, from which it inherited the notion of psychic unity of humankind – the idea that all humans shared a fundamental psychological ‘makeup’. In this sense, while still in some ways complicit in the colonial project, structuralism was crucial in discrediting the racist notions of ‘superiority’ or ‘inferiority’ of human groups as an outcome of biological or ‘natural’ factors.
Similarly to existentialism, structuralism was fundamentally shaped by the experience of two World Wars, colonialism and postcolonialism. The attention to the unconscious (or, in Lacan’s later formulation, sub-conscious) factors shaping human action furnished an alternative explanation for the horrors of WWII that departed both the pessimism of the Frankfurt School and from existentialism’s particular form of humanism. The notion of deep, shared, underlying structures chimed with the idea of universal human rights, developed precisely as bulwark against the repetition of large-scale conflicts like WWII (we can, obviously, discuss how well that worked out in the later parts of the 20th century). But it also legitimized forms of knowledge production built on the colonial encounter, with native populations and cultures providing ‘raw’ material for the analytical work conducted, almost exclusively, by academics in the West.
Post-structuralism shared the focus on the role of unconscious determinants of human action, but with a deeper and more sustained engagement with relations and practices of production in the ‘West’. This was in part through a sustained dialogue with Marxism (evident in the structural Marxism of e.g. Louis Althusser as well as what is sometimes known as ‘Cultural Marxism’ of e.g. Stuart Hall and the British School of Cultural Studies) and feminism (through work of theorists such as Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, Judith Butler, and many others). The boundary between structuralism and post-structuralism is not clear-cut; there are authors who could fall into both categories (Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, Mary Douglas), and those who share post-structuralist precepts while not always being classified as such (Pierre Bourdieu, Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, Angela Davis). Overall, poststructuralism is defined by the attention to culture as both the locus of meaning and signification and a potential source of power relations, rather than just ‘superstructure’ supervening on economic relations at the ‘base’, as some interpreters of Marx were likely to claim.
- Structure and agency: practice theory, reflexivity, social reproduction
The relationship between structure and agency in 20th century social theory came to be known as the structure/agency debate. If humans have free will, how can we explain the reproduction of inequality, injustice and exploitation? At the same time, if structures are all-encompassing or determining, how can we explain resistance, social change, and cultural variation? In this session, we will be examining this problem from the perspective of three theoretical schools. One is the theory of practice, most often associated with the name of Pierre Bourdieu, which focuses on practices as embedded and embodied forms of relating to the world. These forms are mediated through what Bourdieu dubbed ‘habitus’ – dispositions often attained early in life and largely unreflexive – which frame choices people see as available to them. By contrast, Margaret Archer’s morphogenetic theory emphasized reflexivity – the ‘internal conversation’ through which people think about and narrate their choices – as the key vector of social reproduction. Last, but not least, social reproduction theory presented an influential challenge to Marxist theories of production by re-centering questions of gender and race in the context of the historical divisions of labour, and thus paved the way for the recasting of these questions in the arena of late 20th and early 21st century social struggles.
- Power and oppression: knowledge, ideology, hegemony
What people can do depends not only on where they are born, but also on relations of power. It is not difficult to notice that power is unequally distributed within societies, as well as across social categories. But what is power? Where does it reside? Can we conceive of social life without power? Finally, is it possible to have power without oppression?
In this session, we encounter some of the most influential theoretizations of power and its sources in 20th and 21st-century social theory. We start by discussing Michel Foucault and his knowledge/power nexus, including the role of the state in identifying, classifying, and ordering citizens. Second, we discuss Judith Butler and her interpretation of the way discourses constitute the power to act, including collectively. Last, but not least, we discuss late Marxist or neoGramscian notions of ideological power, including the reproduction of discursive-ideological hegemony in the work of e.g. Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe.
- Power and oppression: gender, race, intersectionality
Questions of power cannot be separated from the question of classification, measurement, and comparison of human populations. Historically, these forms of classification have often been used to justify privileging some humans (men, White people, owners of property) over others. In this session, we discuss three theoretical lenses that have critically engaged with the positioning of human beings in relation to their embodiment: gender, race, and their intersection.
While gender has been a preoccupation of theories of society from the very start of social and political thought, a major reconsideration of the relationship between sex, gender, and social structure came with 20th-century feminist theorists. Starting from Simone de Beauvoir’s seminal ‘The Second Sex’, theorists sought to engage the ways in which perception and negotiation of gendered difference shaped how social relations were structured, negotiated, and reproduced. In this session, we will be surveying the evolution and contestation of feminist theories throughout the 20th and 21st century – from early focus of liberal feminism to ‘second-wave’ feminism and questions of labour, care, and social reproduction, to contemporary challenges to feminist theorizing, including the rise of ‘post’ and anti-feminist discourses, and their intersection with populism and the far Right.
Late 19th- and early 20th-century theorists, like W.E.B. Du Bois, argued that race as a social category was systematically constructed in ways that positioned non-White, non-Western people as inferior. This led to the recognition of the concept of ‘race’ as in itself a racialized discourse, rather than a scientific, ‘neutral’ category. In the second half of the 20th century, however, attention increasingly turned towards the ways in which racialized categories, and racialized experience, shaped not only the ‘lives of Black folk’, but the very fabric of society – including the tools and concepts of social theory. One important theoretical strand to come out of this reconsideration is known as Critical Race Theory.
Principally developed in the US, Critical Race Theory engages with the ways in which race and racism permeate social institutions and relations – from policing and prisons, to access to high-esteem professions such as universities and the judiciary. Theories of race formation emphasised the role of ‘race’ as, at the same time, a cultural, economic, and political signifier. A significant engagement in CRT is with the legal system, and issues such as affirmative action/proportional representation, but its implications for social theory go beyond that: they suggest that forms of understanding power, inequality and oppression cannot be ‘transposed’ from the experience of Whites to the experience of people of colour, and other differently marginalized ‘Others’.
The concept of intersectionality builds further on this insight. Black feminist scholars such as bell hooks, Audre Lord, and Angela Davis argued existing theories universalized the experience of a specific group (e.g., liberal feminism that of white, educated, upper-middle-class women; some theories of racism that of straight, black, men). Using Kimberlé Crenshaw’s work as spring-board, Patricia Hill Collins argues that power and social stratification cannot be understood from a singular perspective (class, gender, ‘race’/ethnicity), but have to take into account how multiple social positions intersect to create specific conditions of oppression.
Intersectionality has both a political and a theoretical, or epistemological, side. In other words, we can see it as a critique of dominant modes of engaging with injustice, power and privilege; or we can see it as a critique of dominant models of conceptualizing them, including in social theory. This includes the very notion of ‘society’. Jamaican philosopher Charles W. Mills, for instance, argued that the idea of ‘social contract’– an idea that is at the centre of Durkheimian sociology – is itself a racialized construct: that is, predicated on the (unacknowledged) division of humans into ‘races’, and exploitation based on this. Indigenous thinkers in Canada, Australia, Aotearoa New Zealand, and the US have drawn on a similar argument to emphasize the role of settler colonialism in constructing native inhabitants of colonies as ‘other’ – ontologically, culturally, and morally – thus enabling the exploitation of both natural and human resources.
- What acts? Pragmatist sociology, performativity and affect
In this section, we engage with some of late 20th and early 21st century reconsiderations of power and agency that seek to disrupt the relationship between structure and agency. The theory of performativity, initially developed by the Oxford school of ordinary-language philosophy, sees social reality as constituted through a series of ‘speech-acts’ – statements that enact and reproduce relations, including relations of power. In this session, we will be introducing three major theoretical frameworks that built on this insight: pragmatic sociology, theories of performativity, and affect theory.
Theories of performativity are principally associated with Judith Butler, as well as with Jeffrey Alexander’s revision of 20th century sociology. Butler initially developed her concept of performativity in relation to questions of power, sexuality, and gender. Butler argued that there are no ‘fixed’ gender categories; rather, gender is learned through behaviour – certain kinds of agency are seen as ‘gendered’, and in turn become identified with certain kinds of bodies. The necessity of agency for the constitution of structural categories means that there is no ontological (‘natural’) category of ‘sex’ vs. the ‘social’ category of gender; the distinction itself is an outcome of social performance. Performativity further builds on this insight to ask how social categories are constituted through action. Though in some ways converging with Goffman’s micro-sociology, the important distinction here is that most theorists of performativity do not assume social categories (including gender, race, and class) pre-date or exist independently of social performance.
Pragmatist sociology shares a common set of assumptions, and considers not only how social categories are constituted, but also how social interaction – relations and events – constitute ‘sites’ of both material and symbolic creation of categories and norms. In this session, we will be engaging with post-Bourdieusian pragmatic sociology of Michèle Lamont, Luc Boltanski, Laurent Thévenot, Eve Chiapello, as well as with the STS-inspired work of theorists like Donald Mackenzie, Michel Callon and Anne-Marie Mol.
Theories of affect address another important aspect of the social: the question of how structures and relations (including relations of power) shape the emotional and affective life of individuals and collectives. Lauren Berlant’s concept of ‘cruel optimism’, for instance, argues that capitalism works through a displacement of the framework of hope and striving. Sara Ahmed’s work engages in particular with the gendered and raced politics of affect in institutions, including the ways in which anger, ‘complaint’, and unhappiness are channelled in ways that reproduce social inequalities.
Affect theory intersects with the earlier Marxist-feminist critique of labour of social reproduction through an emphasis on affective, emotional, and care labour – that is, ways in which gender inequality shapes expectations of affective conduct (for instance, women are expected to be ‘nice’, or ‘kind’, or told to smile). While liberal and early Marxist feminists were mostly critical of care as a gendered expectation, more recent calls for a rethinking of the politics of care – including in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic – emphasise possibilities for reframing social relations, both between humans and between humans and non-human environment, with this in mind.
- What acts? Posthumanism, necro/ontopolitics, and the Anthropocene
This session brings our journey through social theory to a close by reconsidering what happens if we extend our theorization of power, structure and agency in ways that recognize that not only humans have power to act. While the traditional concept of ‘society’ pitted human societies as opposed to ‘nature’, late 20th and early 21st-century social theorizing has significantly challenged this notion. In this session, we engage with three main contributions to this reframing. One comes from the concept of bio-, necro-, and ontopolitics, as developed by Michel Foucault, Achille Mbembe, and Elizabeth Povinelli. These notions build and intersect with feminist research into sexual and reproductive politics to highlight the fact that what is recognized as life – and, thus, as a potential agent – depends on political and juridical decisions and processes. This reaches an apex with the concept of ‘Anthropocene’ as a distinct geological epoch, which recognizes the fundamental (but also unequally distributed) impact humans have on changing the climate, and thus shaping the life chances and odds of survival of different human populations. This concept, however, can be criticized from multiple persectives – including that of the hierarchies implied in giving primacy to ‘the human’, something that the broad group of approaches known as posthumanism tend to question. By engaging with these notions, we consider how contemporary social problems – including neonationalist mobilization, the refugee crisis, and the multifaceted impacts of climate change – challenge what we call ‘the social’, and thus call for an extension of both the practice and object of theorizing.